Common Issues in Manuscripts Requiring Corrections: #5 Commas

This is the fifth in a series of posts to address common issues with my suggestions for how writers can improve their manuscripts before turning them over to agents, editors, and the many other individuals involved in the process of turning a manuscript into a book.

#5 Removing commas from where they don’t belong and inserting them where they do

When sentences get long, writers fall victim to the temptation to put in a comma—or two—to give the reader a place to breathe. But sometimes that results in a comma separating the subject from its verb or the verb from its direct object. Often a comma inserted before a conjunction such as and simply breaks a compound predicate into one complete sentence and a phrase that can’t stand on its own.

When editing someone else’s work, I remove unnecessary commas, leaving them in only when their use meets one of four criteria: commas in a series, commas with two or more adjectives, commas with conjunctions (but watch out for this one because it has some rules of its own), and commas in introductory or parenthetical phrases including nouns of address.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends use of the serial, or Oxford, comma. This is the comma that precedes the conjunction—usually and—that connects items listed in a series. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary to accurately convey meaning. See the example sentences below:

Example 1: The people who influenced my life choices most were my parents, the Pope and Mother Theresa.
Example 2: The people who influenced my life choices most were my parents, the Pope, and Mother Theresa.

Because the serial comma is needed some of the time for clarity, I use it in all cases when I edit a manuscript.

The most common case of commas needing to be deleted is connected to conjunctions. Commas are not needed before every instance of a conjunction (and, or, but, so, etc.). For example, commas before and in compound predicates such as the one below are unnecesary.

My doctor advised that I should reduce the amount of sugar I consume and get more exercise.

That’s where I find the most unneeded commas. As important, commas are not needed after most uses of conjunctions either unless what follows is a parenthetical thought that could be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence..

Read through this post to see if you can identify which of the four rules applies to each comma you find.

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