Comma Commotion!

Last week I told you I’d get to the more complicated uses of our comma.  Here is that post, as promised.  All three of these uses make a sentence longer, which can make it fuller and richer.

This week, I’m using examples straight from Life in Dreams, my NaNoWriMo novel!

With a conjunction, a comma can combine two sentences. This is the same function as a semicolon, only the comma needs the help of a conjunction.  Princess Aurana had always been a delicate child, and her long sleep had made her as fragile as spun glass. Follow the same rules as a semicolon for this one.

A comma separates items on a list. Wait! We did this one before!  This is the fancier version, which looks a lot less like a list.  The princess awoke muddled, speaking unfamiliar words and seemingly bewildered by her surroundings.  That’s a list, believe it or not.  Like last week, we simplify it.  It becomes a list of how the princess awoke: muddled, speaking, and bewildered.  Now it looks like a list!

A comma can set off a descriptive phrase.  This means you can take a description that belongs at the end of a sentence and move it to elsewhere in the sentence.  A common one is to move it to the beginning.   After sixteen years of magical slumber, the Princess Aurana had awoken on the morn of her 25th birthday. You can also stick it in mid-sentence, where it becomes a fancier version of My mom, Linda, sent her love.  Here’s a longer version.  King Ferrick and Queen Lizette, hoping against hope that the Oracle had spoken truth, had spared no expense in preparations for this day.

This is where it gets tricky, and can become a matter of personal preference.  You don’t have to use a comma to separate the descriptive phrase.  You can also use parentheses or dashes.  Here is the same sentence with all three, for comparison:

The happy news spread quickly when, as foretold, Aurana opened her eyes.
The happy news spread quickly when (as foretold) Aurana opened her eyes.
The happy news spread quickly when – as foretold – Aurana opened her eyes.

I personally prefer the commas.  I think it looks cleaner and is less likely to draw my eye ahead in the writing.  There may be someone out there who knows the subtleties of when each of these is appropriate (if you’re reading this, please comment!) but I am not that person.

Commas are confusing, because they are so common.  I usually stick with this rule of thumb: if you are speaking it out loud and would pause, you need to use a comma.  (Unless, of course, you need something stronger, like a semicolon or colon.)

On a side note, yes, the beginning of Dreams sounds a lot like Sleeping Beauty.  These are all examples from the first five paragraphs of the novel – the resemblance is simply a setup for the rest of the story.  🙂

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: A Book Review – sort of « Butterflies and Dragons

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