Home > Editor's Corner Podcast > Editor’s Corner Podcast: Comma Confusion, Part I

rules of commas

Are you confused about how to use commas? Not sure whether to scatter them about like sprinkles on a donut or use them austerely? Tune in as Angela and Stephanie discuss the best comma approach.

Stephanie: Welcome to Dog Ear Publishing’s Editor’s Corner, in which we explore all things editorial. I’m Stephanie, the Managing Editor at Dog Ear Publishing, and here with me is my colleague, Angela.

Angela: Hello, all.

Stephanie: Angela and I have been editing collectively for 31 years, and in this podcast we are going to try to take some of the confusion out of writing a book. In today’s podcast we’re talking about an issue we see a lot as editors, which is commas. Specifically, what they are, what they do, and how they should be used.

Angela: Okay. So before we even get started Stephanie, I have a question: How in the world do you talk about commas?

Stephanie: Well, that’s a good question, and I still don’t really have a good answer for that. I think one thing to mention is that commas should be used to help your reading. It’s hard to talk about them, because we don’t have sentences up on a screen for people to look at and point out the commas. But I think that we can look at a different aspect of them, and that’s how they are helpful in our writing.

Angela: I think the biggest thing that people need to remember is that they’re an extremely helpful tool. They’re the one thing that can take a confusing, long, wordy sentence, break it apart into manageable chunks so that your reader isn’t so confused about what you’re trying to say.

Stephanie: Absolutely. I think a lot of teachers, I think everybody in elementary school learned that basic rule of putting in a comma where you would naturally pause and take a breath. Of course that’s not always great, because if you pause a lot, you may have a lot of commas. Or, if you’re one of those people who talk at top speed-

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: You may never have a comma. So I think it’s always a good idea, if you don’t know … if you aren’t sure where commas should go … I think it’s always a good idea to read your writing, to read it out loud as if you were reading to an audience, and to see if the commas fit. Pause where you have a comma, and, if you just find yourself running out of breath, then probably you need to figure out where to put commas in, right.

Angela: Exactly. I think, too, not just reading it out loud, but reading it to an audience. Like you said, finding somebody that maybe isn’t … not literate, but … somebody that hasn’t read your work before, and maybe doesn’t know your writing style, so that, when they’re reading it, they can tell you honestly, “I have no idea what you’re trying to say here,” or, “These sentences are too wordy or clunky,” or whatever the problem is. And maybe that will help writers figure out how to make things a bit more clear.

I think we sometimes forget that we’re … As much as we want to write for ourselves, that the ultimate goal, if you’re trying to get published, is that you want your readers to be able to understand what you’re trying to say. Commas, as boring as they can be, and as frustrating as they can be, they help with that clarity.

Stephanie: Yeah. I absolutely agree. I think the challenge, too … You said to read for someone who is not familiar with your work. And if someone says they don’t understand what’s going on, then it’s, of course, a challenge to step back and look at that and say, “Okay, do I need to cut out a lot of words, or do I just need to add those commas?” That is definitely a problem, and-

Angela: We’re talking about using commas to help your audience understand what you’re trying to say. I think one of the easiest things that can get you there is by finding a style guide, and sticking with that. We at Dog Ear and most … Would you say most fiction publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style?

Stephanie: Yes, I would say that is likely, and probably most non-fiction, as well.

Angela: Okay. The whole point of a style guide is to give every writer that’s using it the same set of rules. Chicago Manual of Style, Edition 16, has 14 pages about commas. It is the largest section in the punctuation section. So it can get a bit intimidating. But with anything editing I think writers have to remember that it’s not always just a rule. Sometimes it’s an aesthetic choice.

Stephanie: Right. Yes, absolutely.

Angela: Yeah, I hate saying that, because it makes it look like, “Ooh, let’s just go in and plop ’em where we want ’em.” That’s not what I mean, obviously, but sometimes, if something is not working, you have to step outside that box, and figure out, “Okay, how am I going to get my point across to the reader?” If it’s not exactly like the style manual says, there is no writing police that are going to come and attack you and arrest you because you didn’t do exactly what they said to do in the book.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. One of by English teachers … and I think this is from some author at some point … but one of my English teachers in high school always said, “You have to know the rules properly before you can break them.”

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: If you choose to break them, that’s okay, so long as you know what the original rule is.

Angela: Well, and you-

Stephanie: If you’re just bad at commas, and you just throw them anywhere, that’s not the same.

Angela: Exactly. Commas can be tough, even for editors. I know you and I have talked before about things like strings of adjectives and finding the perfect place to put the comma to separate those adjectives. In Chicago Manual there’s an example of the sentence, “It is going to be a long, hot, exhausting Summer.” Exactly where those commas should go, it can get a little tricky.

Stephanie: It absolutely can. That’s where … Some people might be surprised to know that editors also have professional groups that coach them along, because every editor has their strengths and weaknesses. One of those groups … They sometimes put out tools. One thing I have that I use all the time from one of those groups is a card that tells me the adjective word order, and where commas need to go. Its guidance is that you use a comma between adjectives that belong to the same category, or when categories blur. So, for example, the order that have, that they list, you don’t need a comma in between quality, size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, and material. You could have one of each of those in that order and never need to use a comma.

Angela: Because it wouldn’t be confusing to readers to have something different every time.

Stephanie: Exactly.

Angela: If you’re describing something that’s like size, size, size, it gets a little bit trickier that way, and that’s what commas are for. I know with, like you’re talking about, coordinate adjectives, things that coordinate together, they always do the trick of putting the word “and” in between the adjectives.

Stephanie: Yes.

Angela: So, if you have “a long, hot, exhausting summer”, long, and hot, and exhausting, take those ands out, replace them with commas, you’re absolutely good to go.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. That’s a great rule, and I always forget to tell authors that one. That’s fantastic.

Angela: It’s sometimes, like I said, tricky for editors too. That’s the one place I always go back and triple-check to make sure that I’ve got the rule right in my head. But, again, like we said, sometimes those rules don’t work, and you have to be a little bit flexible and change things to the way they make more sense.

Stephanie: Yeah, absolutely. One thing I like to say is that commas are like sugar sprinkles on a donut.

Angela: I like that.

Stephanie: They’re wonderful, they’re tasty, and they help, but sometimes … you can’t overdo it. You don’t want to overdo it, because then you just have well … I guess in some people’s opinion you can’t have too many sprinkles on a donut, but it can get overwhelming.

Angela: A stomach ache and cavities. Yes.

Stephanie: But yeah, commas are actually very helpful in helping us-

Angela: Well I think-

Stephanie: -indicate … Sorry, go ahead.

Angela: I think one of the best examples for helping with that is … My favorite phrase is always, “Let’s eat Grandma.” Where you put the comma in that sentence, it changes the meaning completely. It’s kind of an easy way of showing that they’re pretty important.

Stephanie: Right. That’s one that actually that a lot of people have problems with, and that’s one that I address a lot whenever I do edits. It’s that you have to have a comma in direct address, right, because-

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: -it definitely helps in situations like that. You always have to have a comma before and after the person’s name whom you’re addressing, because it does make that huge difference: “Let’s eat Grandma.” Or, “Let’s eat, Grandma.”

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Because you don’t realize when you’re speaking that even the placement of a comma can actually affect the intonation that you use, like a question mark does at the end of a question.

Angela: That’s true. That’s very true. Do you want to explain, everybody’s favorite, what a serial comma is?

Stephanie: Oh yes, thank you. That was perfectly what I wanted to talk about next. The serial comma is the comma that you put in between items in a list. You’re going to grocery store. I’m going to get bread, eggs, and milk. So you would put a comma after bread, a comma after eggs, and before the conjunction. Now here’s where we get to the Oxford comma,-

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: -which is the comma that comes before the conjunction, which is and, or but, and several other. The CMS does actually recommend using the Oxford comma to avoid confusion. It’s been left out a lot in, I believe, AP, because it used to be to save space in very tight newspaper columns.

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: So they are probably the most notorious for leaving out the Oxford comma. It really is helpful, because then people who choose not to use the Oxford comma … I’ve seen authors choose not use it … but then occasionally you do have to use it to avoid that confusion, right?

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: So let’s say, “He ate pickles, cereal, and milk.” It’s not a huge difference here, but if you put the commas in, well, at some point he ate pickles, at some point he ate cereal, and at some point he drank milk. If you don’t have that comma between cereal and milk, then it could be understood that at some point he ate pickles, and then at some point he ate cereal with milk. That’s a difference that the Oxford comma can help with.

Angela: Exactly, exactly. I’d like to just take a second here and remind writers that this what editors are for. This is what we do. If this stuff is just getting … You’re scratching your head and going, “No, I can’t handle all of this.” You do what you do. You write your book. You send it to your editor, and let them take care of these little pieces. They get frustrating, but this is what editors do. Some of us a lot every day, all day, and we can definitely help with those things. You don’t have to understand it all. Even if you can send us a manuscript that has some amounts of proper usage of things like this, it helps us. I think it saves you money, too, because we’re not spending so much time on that.

And you’ve always said too, Stephanie, that if we can spend more time on the overall picture instead of the nuts and bolts, we’re able to help the writer even more.

Stephanie: Absolutely. It always is a great idea for authors to know, as much as possible, the proper use of commas to absolutely help in that. But again, if there are one or two areas that always confuse you with commas, that’s okay, just do your best. That’s another thing. As long as you’re consistent, that makes editing a lot easier as well. It’s a lot easier for an editor to help you if you always tend to make the same type of mistake.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie:Believe it or not, consistency is tremendous in helping us to edit text even better and faster, and to help you get the big picture. If you make the same mistake over and over, we can offer you more tools for that one thing to help you more firmly get that idea in mind.

Angela: And we know what to look for if it’s consistent.

Stephanie: Yes.

Angela: I think a big thing to remember, too, is that you’re not alone. I did a search this morning on Google just for the term “How to use commas properly”. That was it, 18 million hits.

Stephanie: Oh, my gosh.

Angela: I know. So, obviously, people might be a little bit confused by commas. I think, like we said, the CMS having 14 pages, … and this is a small-font book … so it’s one of those things that is confusing to almost everybody.

Stephanie: Absolutely, at least some aspects of it.

Angela: Exactly.

Stephanie: Even if you understand commas, and you have that down, then sometimes you can introduce another punctuation mark, and it might change the rule of your comma usage.

Angela: Exactly, exactly.

Stephanie: It’s certainly … I never … I think a lot of authors are afraid that editors are going to laugh at them or scoff at them for their mistakes-

Angela: Oh, no.

Stephanie: That is certainly not the case, and particularly with commas. That is, I don’t think, ever going to be the case.

Angela: I think if they … If they knew what went on behind the scenes, and the fact that we-

Stephanie: Yes.

Angela: We have these style manuals for a very specific reason. We didn’t memorize it. We can’t memorize it. This thing is like a tome. It’s huge. It’s like a thousand pages long, so, like you said, we have groups we talk to, we have our managing editors … Thank you very much, Stephanie … that we talk to and get ideas from about how to work with these tricky things. Trust me, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you don’t understand these things, because sometimes we don’t either. We have to have help just like anybody else.

Stephanie: Absolutely. I think every day I end up having a conversation with an editor. Either I’m asking a question, “How would you do this?” … because again we go back to there is no hard and set rule. There may be a, quote, “official rule”, but when you get down into the thick of things, it may not be effective to actually follow that rule, as you mentioned earlier.

Angela: Every editor … I’ve had authors that want perfection, and the hard truth is … I don’t think people really understand that if you have two editors, even if they’re both using the same style manual, they’re going to edit your book, or your paper, or your article completely differently.

Stephanie: Absolutely.

Angela: Some of the things will stay the same. Obviously, one space after the end of a sentence, or proper use of colons, or whatever, but it’s not as cut and dry as you would think should be.

Stephanie: Absolutely, yeah. It’s just like in life, you know, every editor has a style, just like every author has a style and voice. And everybody has different things that they’re more comfortable living in the gray areas in. And certainly grammar … Spelling, that’s pretty cut and dry, although that does also adjust and adapt as the language continues.

Angela: That’s true.

Stephanie: But, the grammar rules … There is certain amount of gray area in all of these aspects. Certain editors are very much, “This is the way that the guide says it is; This is the way it should be.” And some editors are more willing to live in that gray area and say, “Well, you know, this is the way it’s supposed to be, but it doesn’t fit your writing style.”

Angela: Right.

Stephanie: And so, you are going to absolutely find that difference in authors and editors.

Angela: I think especially in fiction writing … I think back to … If you’re writing a sentence in which a character is speaking quickly, you don’t want a bunch of punctuation on the page making the readers eye halt, halt, halt. You want it to flow.

Stephanie: Yes.

Angela: And that may mean it’s not technically perfect according to a style manual. But, if the reader reads it, and gets that sense of, “Okay [inaudible 00:17:59], this character is speaking faster and faster, and something’s gonna happen, and oh my gosh … ,” they’re not going to care. “Oh my gosh, wait a minute. Was there supposed to be a comma there?” It just doesn’t even cross their minds.

Stephanie: That is the perfect example. And I always think of Hermione Granger, in the Harry Potter books, because she does that a lot. Absolutely, the commas and punctuation get left out, and I think maybe even occasionally words get run together. That is absolutely, definitely something that … Dialog likes to break a lot of rules.

Angela: Oh, yes. Even words like “Oh my god”. You see more and more now people are putting it as “Omigod”, as one word. You don’t have that proper “Oh, my god”. It just depends upon the type of … whatever you’re writing. For me, anyway … I’m more technical when I am editing a non-fiction book, just because it seems to stick to … I guess the style and the format and everything … It just is easier to stick to the style manual with.

Stephanie: We know that dialog likes to break a lot of rules. Of course there are those style guides. In non-fiction, you’re more likely to use a differing style guide. Every non-fiction specialty, I guess … A lot of them tend to have their own style guides. A lot of the common rules are the same, but definitely you’re going to have to follow those rules more to be respected and to be looked upon as an authority. That’s just the way the world works. So we definitely don’t have the same flexibility that we do in dialog in fiction, or even in the rest of fiction.

Angela: Exactly, and one thing to remember is that every publishing company has its own … I guess it’s called a house style guide, house style sheet. So, the things that we require from our authors manuscripts at Dog Ear Publishing will be very different from the things that they require at a place like Random House, and especially things that they require from places like if you’re publishing with the American Psychological Association or an academic publishing company like that.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if we already talked about that, but every editor is going to have their own things that they are more comfortable with as well, where commas belong or not, there are gray areas, again … in fiction there are more gray areas than in non-fiction.

Angela: Yes.

Stephanie: And you also are going to have certain editors, like authors and like every other aspect of life, who are more comfortable in those gray areas, and saying, “Okay, let’s roll with that. It’s not exactly according to the rule, but I think that it is better to not follow the rule in this case.”

Angela: Exactly, exactly. Fiction guidelines are definitely looser. I think one thing to remember as well is that, at the end of the day, the writer is the one that’s responsible for going back through the final copy of the manuscript before it’s published, and making sure that every kind of message they wanted to get across has been perfected to be able to get across to the readers.

Stephanie: Yes, absolutely. I don’t know about you, but my mind is spinning. It really is challenging to talk about commas, but I think we’ve provided a good broad overview and basis. I think next week we are going to talk about commas one more time, and we’re going to cover those uses that really aren’t as flexible, the ones that really are hard and fast, and that don’t necessarily have a lot of reasoning behind them. They are necessary, because that’s what people’s brains have become used to seeing.

Until next time, keep writing.

Stephanie Stringham
Stephanie Stringham

As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I dreamed of getting paid to read books and of helping people. With this dream, I propelled myself through college to earn bachelor’s degrees in English (minor in Writing and Publishing) and Business Administration while working as a peer tutor in the university writing lab and interning with a publishing company in college. After graduation, I stayed on with the publishing company, where I fell in love with book publishing. Editing is my avocation. I began freelancing right after college, while earning a master’s degree in Health Communication and then working as an editor for Eli Lilly and Company and for the Defense Finance and Accounting Service. I have edited everything from class materials and newsletters to master’s theses, scholastic imprints, professional journals, and books in all genres. I feel my calling as an editor is not only to improve text but also to teach those with whom I work so they can constantly improve their writing. When I’m not editing books, I’m planting and growing things on a small homestead in Indiana with my husband and two children.

Angela Wade
Angela Wade

I have one goal: to create and shape cohesive, fluid, accessible copy that shifts perspective and makes a connection. With more than twelve years of experience in the writing and editing industry, I accomplish that goal through a passion for brainstorming, researching, planning, writing, and editing everything from grants to novels to marketing materials to websites. My articles, interviews, poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in various print and online publications, including Calyx Journal, Inkwell Magazine, Mindful Homeschooler, and Home Education Magazine.