Monday, February 09, 2009

Editorial Tip of the Week: How To Avoid the Misplaced Comma

I am a comma-happy person. I place commas wherever I can in my writing, usually causing my sentences to go on and on for lines at a time. In longer works my commas make an appearance in almost every sentence on the page. Unfortunately, in the end my writing looks messy and disorganized with too many pauses to really understand what the original topic was to begin with. Surprisingly, this is a common problem for most writers.

Normally, the comma is the indication of a break or pause in the sentence. It is used after introductory phrases or words, such as however or therefore, which call for a slight break in the sentence. This pausing method can be, and usually is, abused. In The King’s English, H. W. Fowler points out that writers “have an occasional feeling that here or hereabouts is the place for a comma.” Writers beware! Too many commas are distracting to the reader and lead to wordy and unnecessary phrasing.

How can we avoid this problem? When re-reading your work, take each pause into consideration and meditate on its importance. Will the pause have more of an impact here or later on? Do I need this pause at all? Are six commas really necessary in this one sentence? If you’re still not sure, check out the more black-and-white rules in The Chicago Manual of Style and The King’s English. Your sentences will thank you.

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