Thursday, April 3, 2014
Commas Put Editor in Coma
This might be the headline one day, as I tackle an editing task. They look so sweet and innocent, don’t they? Look at him back there, dangling prettily behind that ‘t’. But they invade my dreams at night, those tiny, tailed dots. Beware the comma apocalypse!
Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too? Where to put the little buggers? When I edit my own writing they pop in and out all the time. I figure it must be something to do with what I have eaten on the day that determines whether I put a comma there or there. Now there are some rules (and guidelines) of course. We all know the famous ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ vs ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ example. There are many other situations in which the presence or absence of a comma changes the meaning. Nevertheless, there remains that grey area. ‘There are a number of situations where their use becomes a matter of judgment and personal preference’, observes the Australian style manual. Damn! Where’s a good rule when you need one?
The use of commas is as much about rhythm as it is about grammar and meaning. This is tricky for someone with little or no sense of rhythm. Or, perhaps, with a fluctuating sense of rhythm. Do I use more commas on days when I have eaten salsa?
Consider one of my earlier sentences: ‘Is it just me, or do they drive you crazy too?’ My natural inclination is to place a comma there, because I ‘hear’ it. But it’s not long before I begin to second guess myself. ‘Is it just me or do they drive you crazy too?’ Now I can hear it without the comma. Does it matter? Probably not.
My inclination when editing someone else’s work is only to modify the use of commas when it actually affects the meaning, or when one of the actual rules for using commas clearly applies.
Even so, you can bet that during each pass that I make through your manuscript commas will pop in and out of existence like some kind of weird sub-atomic particle.