Commatose 1

If I come across as someone who lectures, it’s an occupational hazard. I was an army instructor, taught high school English for six years, and worked my way through four years of grad school as a teaching assistant (for a TA’s place in academia, think whale droppings under The Titanic).

For the next thirteen years, I taught English and writing in a small state college, plus weekly night classes for ten years at reservation junior colleges working off student loans.

Still, I try not to edit like stereotypical English teachers grade. My font is editor blue, not teacher red. I make suggestions you can take or leave, and I don’t grade you; instead, you grade me on every edit I return. To the surprise of several for whom I edit, I’m told I leave lots of valuable positive comments among my prompts for changes, and I invite discussions of alternatives.

Waiting for the however? Here ’tis: Most folks I edit for have problems with commas and actually ask for helps. One who never needs comma help is another writer/editor with whom I swap manuscripts quid pro quo. She’s naturally better at Noah Webster’s five necessary comma rules than anyone—evah!

One secret of her success is never thinking of commas in terms of pauses. Worse is trying to plunk them in where you take breaths. Most confusing is inserting a comma where it doesn’t belong to force a pause.

Instead, commas signal the internal structures of sentences. Purely coincidentally, at some places where commas are needed there are natural pauses, which probably gives rise to simplistic grade school comma “rules,” but at other necessary commas, there are no pauses.

For U.S. publications, five rules explain necessary commas. A few other commas are optional, but the majority are superfluous—excessive, pointless, unnecessary.

Comma Rule Number 1: A comma is necessary to separate a compound structure, two or more main clauses joined by one of the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so.

The woman drank black coffee, and she ate a croissant.

You can conduct yourself in a pleasant manner, or you can be horrible.

Evan loves Suzanne, but he cannot forget Elena.

If a writer chooses to make those constructions into simple sentences, then the comma is not used:

The woman drank black coffee and ate a croissant.

You can conduct yourself in a pleasant manner or be horrible.

Evan loves Suzanne but cannot forget Elena.

(More “Commatose” continues in the posts above.)