Be Your Own Copy Editor #4: A Comma You Should Cull

Self-editing advice from the front line of fiction editing*

Bowie KnifeChoosing when to intervene and add or delete commas is one of the toughest decisions that copy editors make. That’s right: the apparently lowly comma messes with the heads of copy editors like nothing else. Okay, so I’ve made a statement with absolutely no supporting evidence whatsoever, but let’s put it this way: based on my experience as a copy editor, the comma can be a very tricky punctuation mark to use correctly – and when you self-edit your novel, I’m sure you, too, will find your little finger doing a dance from Comma key to Delete key and back again ad infinitum with grated cheese sprinkled on top.

I’m not going to talk about the use of commas in general today but instead focus on a specific misuse of them in particular that is easy to correct and which I see all the time, especially in novels written by authors from the States. Why do I single out US writers in particular? Well, here comes a compliment, also based on no supporting evidence whatsoever except my own experience: you, sirs and madams, are generally more informed about grammar and punctuation than those of us who call Her Majesty our queen. I’m guessing that this is because you have a lot more grammar and punctuation education in your school and college system than the Brits do. In the instance I’m going to talk about, however, I fear that some of you’ve been diligently applying the wrong couple of rules. 

One of those is the serial comma rule. If there’s a rule that is followed more religiously in the States than it is in the UK, it’s this one. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is a style bible for American fiction writers and copy editors, says, in rule 6.18 of the sixteenth edition, a serial comma should be used ‘when a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more’. The reason? It ‘prevents ambiguity’. (Well, not always; sometimes it creates ambiguity, but that’s a topic for another day.) The last comma in the following passage is an example of a serial comma sitting snugly in its natural habitat:

Jake checked the weapons he was bringing to the hit on Max Amici. He had a Glock, bowie knife, and brass knuckles.

Okay, so this Jake character sounds like the kind of guy who would beat us up for being nerds if he knew we were discussing commas, but let’s not be intimidated by him and continue, since he probably isn’t going to find out. What I suspect has happened to US writers is they’ve become so conditioned by the serial comma rule, which frequently directs them to place a comma before and, plus the rule that independent clauses connected by a conjunction – and included – should usually have a comma preceding the conjunction (see Chicago 6.28), that they believe the comma before and in the following sentence is correct: 

Jake punched Max in the face with his brass knuckles, stabbed him in the liver with the bowie knife, and shot him in the stomach with his Glock.

But that comma shouldn’t be there. Despite first impressions, the sentence is neither a list nor consists of more than a single independent clause; instead, what we have here is a sentence with a compound predicate – a single subject (Jake) is the topic of three verbs: punched, stabbed and shot. (I’ll talk about how to identify compound predicates in more detail later.) Since it’s a sentence with a compound predicate, that comma before and needs a good stabbing in the liver, too – an action recommended by Chicago 6.29, a rule entitled ‘Commas with Compound Predicates’, though not in quite as graphic terms as the ones I’ve used.

hurdleYou’ve heard of this rule, right? No? Well, if you haven’t, that really doesn’t surprise me. No one talks about the rule for commas with compound predicates. It doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry, for example, like Mr Fancy Trousers the serial comma does. But, in me, this neglected rule does at least have one big advocate. By applying it in a sentence like the one above, we remove a pause, leaving the sentence with just a tiny bit more forward momentum than it would otherwise have. And momentum is important to writers of genre fiction, for whom the holy grail is receiving feedback saying they’ve written a page turner – unless, of course, that praise comes in Amazon reviews written by their mums under pseudonyms. Okay, so whether your book is perceived as a page turner or not by anyone except your mum will largely be down to the quality of your storytelling, but you can enhance your novel’s page turnability with a little help in the punctuation department. For me, using a comma such as the final one in the sentence above is like suddenly placing a hurdle in the way of a 100-metre sprinter 15 metres before the finish line – and I’m imagining the reader as the sprinter. Here is the sentence again, with the obstacle removed: 

Jake punched Max in the face with his brass knuckles, stabbed him in the liver with the bowie knife and shot him in the stomach with his Glock.

There, that’s better. Would the world have ended if that last comma before and had been left in? No. I think we could’ve still slept in our beds tonight, not our underground bunkers. But deleting the comma does make a difference. That action right at the end of our example sentence – shooting Max in the stomach – is already geographically remote from the subject, Jake, the person who performs it, who’s mentioned way back at the beginning. That action doesn’t need a comma going before it, creating a pause, fencing off its part of the sentence, introducing even more distance now, does it? Should you happen to be a writer who uses commas before and in clauses with compound predicates, there will be a cumulative effect when you take them all out.

As I said, my theory is that those commas get there in the first place because writers are misapplying the serial comma rule and the rule for commas with independent clauses connected by conjunctions, but I also think that The Chicago Manual of Style should shoulder some responsibility, since 6.29 is badly written and confusing. ‘A comma is not normally used between the parts of a compound predicate,’ it says. Well, actually, yes it is. Commas are used between all the parts of a compound predicate except the final two, meaning only if there are just two parts to the clause is there no comma. In our example sentence, for instance, for obvious reasons there’s a comma between Jake punched Max in the face with his brass knuckles and stabbed him in the liver with the bowie knife – the first two parts – but there’s no comma between the final two parts. (Please don’t tell Jake I study the manual in detail and care about stuff like this. He’d probably come round my house and use the book as a weapon to batter me to death with – it’s hefty enough.) Here’s how I would formulate the rule, making it clearer (I hope): 

A comma should not be used between the final two parts of a compound predicate, unless using a comma would prevent a misreading.

I’ll come back to the bit about preventing a misreading in a moment. Three-verb sentences with compound predicates are common in genre fiction. I guess this is because they move things along nicely – which is why you might not want to use them in action scenes like the one in which Jake perforates Max, since it’s a good idea to slow down the pace of description during action and linger over every detail. Three-verbers can take care of business, though, when you’re describing more mundane actions and want to hurry the narrative along. For example:

Jake left Max’s body slumped against the wall, went to the kitchen and made himself an espresso. 

I don’t often see sentences with more than a three-verb or four-verb compound predicate. I imagine that’s because authors don’t want to cram too much into one sentence, like in this five-verb festival of activity:

Jake left Max’s body slumped against the wall, went to the kitchen, switched on the light, took a bag of Lavazza from the cupboard and made himself an espresso.

As is often the case with a rule, sometimes there is a good reason not to obey it. ‘A comma may occasionally be needed, however, to prevent a misreading,’ advises Chicago, back at its sagacious best, in 6.29. Here’s an example where a comma is necessary:

Max looked out the window. He recognised the guy who stood in the road outside his house, and vomited.

That would be Jake, of course, that Max recognises standing in the street in the moments before the hit. See the comma before and? If it wasn’t there, the sentence would be saying that Jake vomited, and we know Jake isn’t the kind of guy to throw up (‘blow chunks’ in US money) before murdering someone. So, unless there’s the possibility of a misreading, don’t be putting those commas before a final and in a sentence with a compound predicate. Or I’ll tell Jake you told everyone he’s a girl’s blouse (‘wimp’ in dollars and cents), and you saw what he just did to Max Amici.

SELF-EDITING CHECKLIST

1. Identify compound predicates. I’ve outlined how to do that in detail below.

2. Eliminate commas between the last two parts of those compound predicates, unless by doing so you create the possibility of a misreading. I’ve talked about commas before and, which I find are the ones I most frequently have to give a lethal injection, but you will also often find them preceding but.

3. If you live in the States, brace yourself for criticism from beta readers and writing group peers for taking commas out of compound predicates – should you be lucky enough to get feedback from people who take a deep interest in your punctuation, that is. Some copy editors and proofreaders will contest your comma cull, too. 

4. Don’t listen to them; instead, feel smug and superior, and refer everyone to Chicago 6.29. 

HOW TO RECOGNISE A SENTENCE WITH A COMPOUND PREDICATE

I’m going to use the old-fashioned definition of a predicate, since it serves our purposes well here. The predicate of a clause is everything other than the subject, and it gives information about that subject. Look at this single-clause sentence: 

Jake gazed at himself in the mirror.

Jake is the subject, and everything else is the predicate. Jake is our topic, and gazed at himself in the mirror, the predicate, tells us something about our topic, Jake. You have a compound predicate on your hands when a single subject is the topic of more than one verb in the predicate. For example:

Max saw Jake and threw up.

Max is the lone subject in the sentence. He does two things, indicated by saw and threw up; therefore, the sentence has a two-verb compound predicate, and placing a comma before and is incorrect. The same rule we’re applying to commas before and needs to be applied to commas before but in sentences with a compound predicate.

Max saw Jake, but didn’t see a weapon. = incorrect

Max saw Jake but didn’t see a weapon. = correct

Compare these examples with:

Max saw Jake, but he didn’t see a weapon. = correct

Max saw Jake outside his house, and he knew Jake wasn’t about to visit to wish him a happy birthday. = correct

These sentences don’t have compound predicates; instead, each consists of two independent clauses connected by a conjunction. Each clause has its own subject (Max or he) and its own predicate, and the commas before and and but are therefore correct, since a comma is always correct when it precedes conjunctions connecting independent clauses. However, the comma is optional in the first example, since the two clauses are short and closely related, and authors who like to keep commas to a minimum might even leave the comma out in the second example, too.

* Every post in this blog series deals with an issue I commonly see in manuscripts.

Photos: © www.123rf.com. Words: © Marcus Trower 2012. Feel free to pass the link to this post on using Twitter, Facebook, semaphore, talking drums, a plastic cup connected to another plastic cup by string, etc.

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About Marcus Trower

I'm a book editor, writer and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu addict.

Posted on January 16, 2013, in Be Your Own Copy Editor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. This piece was so valuable as I have just had my work read by a retired English teacher. She has inserted many commas so I will check them out with your advice at hand to see if they are indeed necessary. Thankyou so much. Beryl Henshaw (preparing dissertation for MA Creative Writing)

    • Hi Beryl. I love hearing that I’ve helped someone. Bear in mind there are quite a lot of rules for commas. Some you can’t really ignore; others are more a matter of choice. Good luck with the dissertation.

  2. My wonderful high school teacher in the “hinterlands” of Ohio taught us this rule many, many years ago, but I couldn’t recall the rule–I merely followed it. But no one else has since, and I began to wonder if I was wrong. Thank you, thank you. Now I have something to point to when someone points out my “error.”

  3. This is one of the best pieces on commas – period. : ) THANK YOU!

  4. Thank you so much for choosing this subject! I can finally stop ripping my hair out over whether to go back and add the commas. The sentences looked right to me until I saw other books using the comma with a compound predicate and started adding them on during editing. Bless punctuation nerds. I think I love you!

  1. Pingback: ‘Be Your Own Copy Editor’ Post Changes Course of Publishing History | Marcus Trower Editorial

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