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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Commas Between Subjects and Verbs

I just read the first two pages of a novel and had to stop.  Why?  Commas.  Our little curly-tailed friends drove me to close the book and push it as far away as I could.

Now, most writers polish their first line until it's perfect.  Many revise it, revise it, throw it out, start over.  Any professional is at least going to check it twice for typos and punctuation errors.  Not so with this work.  The novel shall remain nameless, since I don't want to crush the author under the fist of my punctuational tyranny.  I do, however, feel rather strongly about it, and hope that I may help future writers.  As I'm keeping the novel anonymous, I also had to change the actual words of the first line, but I kept the exact structure.  Observe:

*With a sensation of being pulled underwater, Thomas John Rawhide, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (ungrammatical)

Eeek!  What on EARTH is that second comma doing there?  Commas are a dastardly bunch.  No one agrees exactly where they belong.  Some of the rules are quite complicated, even if you subscribe to them.  There are, however, some things most experts and editors do agree on.  One of them is that a comma never, ever, ever goes between the subject and the verb (as above), unless the comma is setting off an appositive (a word or phrase that redefines the noun right next to it).  Example:

Thomas John Rawhide, rancher extraordinaire, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (grammatical)

Or:  Thomas John Rawhide, who had never seen snow in his life, kept his eyes on the horizon.  (grammatical)

Since I found the exact same error five lines down, and again on page two, I had to conclude that the author simply didn't know the rule.  Maybe she had polished her first line.  She just didn't have the right tools.  The editor, however, had absolutely no right letting that slip.  Which leads me to believe it was self published, which thing I had not expected, as the book's copyright was from 1979, and I hadn't realized vanity publishing was a big thing then.

So, if you plan on self-publishing and don't want to annoy your reader, or if you don't want to get instantly rejected by every agent you ever query, or if you're learning how to write essays for school, here's a rule to remember: 

Comma Rule #1:  NEVER put a comma between a subject and a verb, unless the comma sets off a non-restrictive clause.

INCORRECT:  The computer I use at work, is broken.
CORRECT:  The computer I use at work is broken.

INCORRECT:  The man who shot me, got out of prison today.
CORRECT:  The man who shot me got out of prison today.
CORRECT:  Alfred F Gully III, who shot me last year, got out of prison today.

Punctuation is no picnic.  Used correctly, however, it clarifies your writing.  Master it before it masters you.


  1. Melinda, preach on. Any decent spellcheck software will catch some of those errors as would any decent literary editor. Nothing turns me off more quickly reading a book is when I encounter punctuation and spelling errors.

  2. I must have read the same book, and felt exactly the same way you did. I couldn't follow the story because of all of the commas!

  3. And people say punctuation isn't important...