In the beginning…
I remember when my first piece was published. I was nine years old and from then on I felt like I could be a great writer. I even thought I knew the rules, better than others. Boy was I in for a surprise much later in life.
As a child I wrote stories every day. If I wasn’t writing stories I was reading stories. Then in high school I worked on the school newspaper. Wherever life lead me throughout adulthood, I kept writing my stories, though I never did do anything with them. I don’t think I finished any of them either. I wrote novels, short stories and poetry. While I had my favourite genres such as historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy, I dabbled in others too. Romance, mystery, crime, self-help, memoir, nonfiction, magazine articles — I tried them all.
My parents like many I’m sure, told me repeatedly that writing would achieve nothing. It wouldn’t pay the bills, and it would take me nowhere. Looking back now, I realize that was the voice in my head that kept me from doing anything real with my writing. Until one day, when my world fell apart. I’d just assumed that perhaps I could write for real once I’d raised my children and had plenty of down time in my retirement, so when I was faced with having to make an abrupt, fast change of course in my life, I wondered if I could take this thing I loved to do, and actually do something with it. So in my mid-thirties, I went to university. And I studied professional writing.
So what is my point? Well, I thought I knew the rules better than most people. I could spell better than most, had a sufficient vocabulary, and a better imagination and I knew how to use punctuation better than most. Especially simple things like periods, commas and colons. Maybe I was a bit fuzzier on the semicolon but I thought I had a handle on it. I was a writer. Of course I know what the rules are.
Ha! Welcome to studying professional writing, including professional editing. It took just one class before it was ego-destroyingly clear that I had no idea what I did not know. And I had another four years to go!
The punctuation journey begins here.
Would you believe that one of the most difficult pieces of punctuation to master is the comma? I wouldn’t have guessed that either until I had to learn the rules. It’s generally the semicolon that gets the bad rap, that has such confusion surrounding it. But no, the comma has so many more rules attached to it. For this reason, I’m going to spend an entire month clarifying the correct ways to use a comma. For those that believe they have a pretty good handle on using a comma, try going back up to my story and picking out the comma mistakes. Hint: there are 13.
Let’s begin with the most important comma rule.
The most important function a comma has is also its most confusing. A comma is used to separate two complete thoughts, that is, two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. The important part here is that each clause must be complete, meaning it must be able to stand on its own as a sentence should the other clause be destroyed by an enemy missile. These two clauses must also be connected by a demilitarized zone that holds them together. Each side exists fine by itself, but they can coexist with the help of the coordinating conjunction: the demilitarized zone.
Correct: Jack jumped in his dilapidated pickup to try and catch the best thing that had ever happened—ever would happen—to him as she sped away, but fate had other ideas.
Incorrect: Jack jumped in his dilapidated pickup to try and catch the best thing that had ever happened—ever would happen—to him as she sped away but fate had other ideas.
Incorrect: Jack jumped in his dilapidated pickup to try and catch the best thing that had ever happened—ever would happen—to him as she sped away, and slipped and fell in his haste.
Incorrect: Jack jumped in his dilapidated pickup to try and catch the best thing that had ever happened—ever would happen—to him as she sped away, she was just too fast for him.
There are a couple other ways to think of it. If math is your thing rather than words, think of it as an equation: A=B. “A” is a complete entity that can stand on its own, and “B” is a complete entity that can stand on its own, but the “=” is the coordinating conjunction in between that allows them to exist together equally.
Or, for a better picture and a little more fun, the comma is the wiener in the hot dog. Sure, you can eat the bun on one side of the wiener, and you can eat the bun on the opposite side of the wiener, but they’re still just a bun. Equal, but boring! Stick the wiener in, and you have something that joins each side — and makes it something better and more interesting!
The key here is check each side to see if there is something doing something. For example, let’s use a simplified version of the earlier example. On side one, Jack jumped in his truck, and on side two, fate had other ideas., The comma and the coordinating conjunction glue the two sides together.
The introductory clause…dun, dun, dun…