Get Published: The Nuts and Bolts of English, and How to Impress a Publisher (2)

The tiniest things can be so useful when you come to consider the nuts and bolts of writing. The comma is one of them. No, don't go away: it's a useful device that's often used badly -- or ignored altogether.

As an editor of books, I am forever sticking commas into other people's prose, having first of all had to work out what their sentence is trying to say. Many people are slapdash about comma use, and it can go down badly with a commissioning editor who is, say, looking at your approach letter and sample chapter and thinking, "Uh, oh. This one's going to give us problems. Where's that equally promising but better-presented proposal that will cost us far less in copy-editing fees?"

There are many useful punctuation and grammar tips in a downloadable book I co-wrote on how you can get yourself published very quickly, You Can Write Books (at www.youcanwritebooks.com), although its main focus is on how to get your work before a publisher. But here I'll deal with this one useful but sometimes overlooked little squiggle, and a few things that many writers neglect.

First, should be used in a list of items to break them up: pens, pencils, books, and paper. Should you use a comma before and in that list, though? Well, yes if you're, say, a North American; yes and no if you're British. This is called the list comma or serial comma (it is often called the Oxford comma, and is still used by Oxford University Press).

Many people say it's not necessary, because the word and in that sentence is doing the job the commas were doing earlier in the sentence. However, many writers of English throughout the world -- notably, as I said, in America -- like the serial comma, and insist on it. Most British writers, publishers, and newspapers don't bother with it, and so would write "writers, publishers and newspapers"; "pens, pencils, books and paper."

What should you do? Well, you choose a style and stick to it. Be consistent. Better still, you see which style your potential publisher uses, and go with that. That goes for all stylistic considerations. Don't forget: you're selling an idea to a publishing house, and anything you can do to impress them will go in your favor.

The comma is also very handy to separate two distinct clauses in a sentence, and this is where many writers ignore it. You'll see how I used it in the last sentence, after the word sentence. Not only does it give you a pause for breath (a mental breath if you're not reading aloud, of course), but often it can help the meaning.

Take this: "I passed the ball to Joe and Fred kicked it into the net." I passed the ball to Joe and Fred? No, I passed it to Joe, and then Fred came along and kicked it into the net. You get the meaning eventually, but why should I as writer give you, the reader, pause? If I'd written, "I passed the ball to Joe, and Fred kicked it into the net," you wouldn't even have blinked, because the meaning would have been immediately clear.

Or look at this sentence: "That day I went to the movies ..." could mean that on that particular day I went to the movies ("That day, I went to the movies") or that it was on the day I went to the movies that something else happened ("That day I went to the movies something else happened").

In the first pair of parentheses above, you'll see how the comma has been used to convey the first of the two possible meanings. But, if you miss it out, you're going to have your reader thinking you meant it the other way. If that's not your intention, make sure you use the comma.

A few final brief points, then, about the comma.

Commas come before quoted speech: "Joe said, 'Let's go and see a movie.'"

Commas come after a piece of quoted speech, before you say who's speaking: "'Let's go and see a movie,' said Joe."

Commas can be used in the way brackets are used: "My English teacher, Martha Moonbeam, gave me good marks this week." The commas here are known as bracketing commas, because they do the same work as parentheses (round brackets, like these) but in a "weaker" way.

Another example of bracketing commas would be, "The train, which was late leaving, made up for lost time." Don't miss off the second comma; many people do.

Commas separate adjectives in such sentences as, "It was a cold, damp, dreary sort of day." In this context, they're doing much the same work as in the list of items above, except that here we have adjectives, not nouns.

In one short article, you have, I hope, got to grips with this bit of occasionally troublesome but very useful punctuation. You may have been familiar with some of the things, anyway, but I hope that, if there were one or two concerns you weren't too sure about, this article has been of help.

Andrew John is co-author of You Can Write Books, a no-nonsense downloadable book from http://www.youcanwritebooks.com that will get you into print if you follow its advice. He and his co-author, Stephen Blake, have written more than a dozen print titles (details on http://www.youcanwritebooks.com). Both are writers and editors, and You Can Write Books is crammed with advice you can trust.

In The News:

What Academics Misunderstand About 'Public Writing'  The Chronicle of Higher Education
A day in the life of a romance writer  The New Indian Express
The writing on the wall  The Shift News
The diva is now a writer  Mumbai Mirror

Write Your Way To A Better Brain

Boost Brain Power Through WritingHave you ever noticed what happens... Read More

Becoming A Successful Author: The Price!

So you want to be a successful author? You want... Read More

5 Easy Steps To Writing Your Appealing Letter

You must write a hypnotic persuasion letter to help you... Read More

Should You Hire a Ghostwriter?

Have you heard the term 'ghostwriter' and wondered what they... Read More

Writing Internal Newsletters: How to Build Your Network and Your Reputation

To help build your profile and reputation within a large... Read More

Getting Past The Shoulds To Write

During the past few months I have received many questions... Read More

Rules for Getting the Story Down

1. Write it fast, fix it later.2. Commit to writing... Read More

Making Money from Freelance Writing

Making Money from Freelance WritingIt's the question that every aspiring... Read More

A Beginners Guide to Writing a Novel

No one is born a novel writer. But do you... Read More

Best Writing Advice I Ever Got

I've been in the communications business a long time?over 25... Read More

Making The Time To Write That Novel

Finding the time to write a novel is one of... Read More

And What Do You Do? ... How To Know When Youre a Writer!

It's the funniest thing. When someone asks me what I... Read More

10 Tips To Help You Pack More Power Into Your Business Writing

1. Before you write anything down define not what you... Read More

Aesop, Abraham Lincoln, and You

May I tell you about a writing technique shared by... Read More

New Authors Publishing Options

All your publishing options are as follows:--Conventional publishing--Vanity or subsidy... Read More

Amazing Ways Writing Articles Can Improve Your Business

How to get a lot of traffic to your website... Read More

Formats for Writing Life Narratives

Q and A.Best choice when subject is very verbal or... Read More

Why Every Freelancer Should Have A Web Site

"Do I send samples, a media kit, or just the... Read More

10 Secrets For Everyday Writing Success

During my 25-year career in a variety of professional positions... Read More

A New Way To Self Publish

More and more good authors are turning to the Internet... Read More

You Cant Always Believe What You See On Your Computer Screen

You may not remember this, but in the early days... Read More

6 Ways to Toot Your Own Writing Horn

You know you've got writing talent. Others enjoy your work... Read More

Get Creative In The Great Outdoors

Summer's here and the time is write for dancing in... Read More

Go With The Flow: Write With Transition Words and Phrases

One of the most common weaknesses I see in day-to-day... Read More

How To Write Thank You Letters With Class

When I first started tracking the information preferences of people... Read More