Writing Crime: Being Trigger Happy with Commas

Admit it: we use commas more than we should. It’s tempting, to use, a lot of commas, they’re free, after all, but, more often than not, excessive use of commas can abruptly, and unnecessarily, disrupt, the flow of a sentence. See what I mean? Using commas improperly can also drastically alter the meaning of a sentence, so make sure you use commas right.

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Rules regarding proper comma usage can be complicated.  But really, that’s not an excuse to sprinkle in too much. Using a comma is like sprinkling salt on your food: use too much of it and you end up ruining the taste. Use the right amount, and you allow the flavors to shine.

Here are five examples of excessive comma usage:

  • Using too many commas due to poor sentence structure.

    Eg: “If a killer asteroid, was, indeed, incoming, a spacecraft could, in theory, be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”
    This sentence has no flow whatsoever. How do you fix it? Bend some of the rules! Do away with bracketing interjections with commas. It can read like this: “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, a spacecraft could, in theory, be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”

    Furthermore, by appropriately restructuring this sentence, one can reduce the number of commas. It can read like this: “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, in theory, a spacecraft could be launched to nudge the asteroid out of the Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”

  • Using commas after a restrictive appositive
    E.g. “The metaphor, ‘The world is a machine,’ began to replace the metaphor, ‘The world is a living organism.’”

    Because they are restrictive appositives, the quotations in this sentence should not be separated from the word “metaphor.” Only non-restrictive appositives can be preceded by commas. Confused? Restrictive appositives define the word preceding them, while non-restrictive appositives only provide additional information.

    The sentence should read like this: “The metaphor ‘The world is a machine’ began to replace the metaphor ‘The world is a living organism.’”

  • Using commas between words that are not coordinate adjectives
    E.g. “The event is part of a catchy, public health message about the importance of emergency preparedness.”

    Coordinate adjectives can be interchanged and can also be separated using the word “and.” In this sentence, “catchy” and “public health” are not coordinate adjectives, and therefore cannot be separated using commas. No one says “public catchy health,” right?

  • Using a comma to separate a month and a year
    E.g. “The report was completed in December, 2012.”

    This is simple enough to follow. No comma is necessary between a month and the year. Commas are only necessary if the date is specific: “The report was completed on December 1, 2012.” Otherwise, ditch that comma between the month and the year. You don’t need it.

  • Using a comma for an epithet not preceded by an article
    E.g. “Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist, John Smith, sketching the American landscape along the way.”

    Commas are only necessary in this sentence if the descriptive term, “fellow fledgling artist” is followed by an article (Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist, John Smith, sketching the American landscape along the way). Unfortunately, this type of error is so common that it’s often mistaken as proper.


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