The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

03 June 2010

This comma packs a wallop!

What is this thing called, love?

Do you remember learning grammar in school? Parsing, or diagramming sentences was out of fashion when I was being state-educated, but Mr. Arthur, my grade 8 teacher, was an excellent teacher (he actually taught us how to study for exams) and he thought it might be useful for us to know about verbs and nouns. He led us into deeper territory where gerunds and appositives played with participles (which never dangled). I loved it. It equally challenged, fascinated, and frightened me. Remembering fine details and split-hair distinctions is hard for me, but I really get off on organizing and making things tidy.

Since deciding to take these writing classes, I’ve been looking forward to the grammar portion. I enjoy editing – not my own work, as the many mistakes here in The Lighthouse will prove – but my idea of fun is to take apart a newspaper or magazine article. I keep track of typos, plot holes, punctuation errors and week passages in the books I read. For me, this is fun.

So, I embarked on class number three eager to tear stuff up. I imagined myself fearlessly and confidently wielding a red pen, tweaking and perfecting the words of others. I was brought up short by the 400 page textbook, full of things so hazy in my memory that I may have only dreamed about them one night long ago after eating some bad chicken. Four hundred pages of ‘grammar basics’, sentence structure, punctuation, and word choice! I was about to climb a learning curve.

I am particularly fond of the comma. It is an unassuming thing, but its misuse can bring hilarious results or tragic consequences. Here are some of the helpful grammatical tips I have learned so far:

Use a comma between coordinate adjectives - but not cumulative adjectives. Commas go after initial participial phrases, before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses, to set off non-restrictive elements (those elements being clauses, phrases and appositives), to set off transitional phrases, parenthetical expressions, absolute phrases and elements expressing contrast.

If a quotation appears at the beginning of a sentence, set it off with a comma unless the quotation ends with a question mark or an exclamation point. If two successive sentences from the same source are interrupted by explanatory words, use a comma before the explanatory words and a period after them. Periods and commas are placed inside quotation marks, while colons and semi colons are placed outside quotation marks.

By far the best piece of advice I have found on the comma comes from the book Eats, shoots & leaves, by Lynne Truss, and it is this: don’t use commas like a stupid person!

Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.

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