What I learnt this week: the pesky comma

To comma or not to comma? That is my question. 

A few days ago I received the final, final, probably final again, proof for my ebook, Life After, which will be published by The Wild Rose Press (not sure when yet). It’s the first book I ever received a publishing contract for (yes, it’s taken a while to get to this stage!). Subsequent to this I was lucky enough to be given two contracts with Choc Lit and am now a very happy Choc Lit author.

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It’s been several months since I last reviewed Life After and this time it was the galley proof, where you see the version as it will look in digital print rather than a word document. I couldn’t believe the explosion of commas. They were everywhere. Muttering about the editor under my breath I looked back at the previous version and gulped. That was riddled with the damn things, too.

It seems that somewhere between the last few reviews of this manuscript I’ve stopped using so many commas. Is this right? A good thing or a bad thing? I’ve been desperately scanning the literature and it seems that there are two distinct functions for the comma. The first is to show the grammar of the sentence. The second to help with flow and rhythm. Of course sometimes the two clash.

In my case, I had a lot of phrases where I used a comma before an and. For example:

She was honest, sweet, and trusting.

According to my bible, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the comma before the and isn’t necessarily as wrong as I first thought. The author of that book believes that sometimes a sentence is improved by a comma, sometimes it isn’t. A comma can act like a brake, slowing it down to create emphasis, and we shouldn’t be too rigid about them.

Oops, there I go again, putting a comma before an and - something I’m sure I was told not to do at school. Truth is, the words flow from my brain to my typing fingers with little conscious thought. When I begin to think about punctuation, I’m sunk. Which probably explains why, armed with my book, all I could see over the pages of Life After were commas, jumping up and down, waving their arms and screaming at me. Just like when you buy a new car in a colour you think is a bit different but then all you can see on the road is your car in your colour. All I could see on my pages now were commas.

So I took a step back and thought as a reader, not a writer. Do I notice commas when I read? Only if they’re glaringly in the wrong place.

With that in mind I deleted the obvious errors I found (he had black, hair, a square jaw and clear grey eyes:  agghhhh) and relaxed about the rest.

Now all I can do is pray that should you be kind enough to read this book, you won’t notice any of those pesky commas.