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Commas!

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An old saying that I remember about commas:

A cat has claws at the ends of his paws.

A comma is a pause at the end of a clause.

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Yes! Personal taste rules the day! I've never seen a rule for comma usage yet that always works. Never. I've seen great authors, esteemed authors, whose comma usage varies all over the map, with inconsistency the norm.

That is very true. Usually by the time I've gone back and reviewed a manuscript for the third or fourth time, I start excising the excessive commas. I'm inclined to use a few more than I should. Sometimes, a pause can be implied instead of hitting the reader on the head with it.

Don't get me stahted on semi-colons!

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As a sometime poet I doggedly cling to the principle that marks of punctuation, and particularly the comma, are rhetorical in origin and are best used to indicate pacing, in poetry and in prose, as an aid to a reader making his way through a paragraph or a stanza.

Try reading anything you have written aloud, as though to an audience whose understanding of the meaning is important to you. Pay attention to the way you will spontaneously deliver your text by introducing pauses, both short and long, for emphasis and to underscore ideas. That is how orators began marking up manuscripts: with commas, semicolons, and periods as prompts for success in delivery. Poetry, beginning from such an oral tradition, relies on punctuation markings to help achieve meaning, despite the attempts of nineteenth century language technicians to co-opt the idea of punctuation to serve the training of youth in the "rules" of grammar.

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The problem, of course, is when personal taste and using commas to create pauses so as to make a sentence easier to read, conflicts with the rules of grammar. Do you follow your instincts, or follow the rules? That's what I'm frequently up against. For instance, a sentence beginning with a dependent clause and followed by an independent clause is supposed to have a comma separating the two clauses. But frequently the comma seems either superfluous or disruptive. As I think it would in that sentence. I'd much rather have it written as I did than written: But frequently, the comma seems either superfluous or disruptive. I find the pause that comma creates in the flow of the sentence distracting and very much unnecessary.

If anyone is interested, here's a link to a pretty good rule book on comma usage:

http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp

C

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The problem, of course, is when personal taste and using commas to create pauses so as to make a sentence easier to read, conflicts with the rules of grammar. Do you follow your instincts, or follow the rules? That's what I'm frequently up against. For instance, a sentence beginning with a dependent clause and followed by an independent clause is supposed to have a comma separating the two clauses. But frequently the comma seems either superfluous or disruptive. As I think it would in that sentence. I'd much rather have it written as I did than written: But frequently, the comma seems either superfluous or disruptive. I find the pause that comma creates in the flow of the sentence distracting and very much unnecessary.

Interesting. Using that particular example, though, if I were speaking it aloud to someone and wanted to make sure I got the point across, I'd be inclined to put a stress on "frequently" and follow it with a brief pause. Nevertheless, the point comes across either way. It is, in a manner of speaking, a manner of speaking. I tend to be a bit more histrionic in my speech than the average person.

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It is, in a manner of speaking, a manner of speaking.

:icon_thumleft:

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I find the pause that comma creates in the flow of the sentence distracting and very much unnecessary.

I think, like many things in life... it depends.

Here's another good list of rules for commas, including the popular "FANBOYS" mnemonic:

http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/commas/

The author makes a very good point that not all pauses need commas. I think the key would hinge on whether the reader might be confused it the comma was not inserted in the sentence. My background was in journalism and feature writing, so I have an innate dislike for very, very long sentences, particularly those without some kind of punctuation. Often, I find it's better to break the sentence up into two or three smaller fragments for dramatic effect. Sometimes a comma will do it; sometimes it needs to be broken off into its own sentence. It's purely stylistic and personal taste, but as with everything personal, there is a limit to what you can get away with in public.

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...My background was in journalism and feature writing, so I have an innate dislike for very, very long sentences, particularly those without some kind of punctuation. Often, I find it's better to break the sentence up into two or three smaller fragments for dramatic effect. Sometimes a comma will do it; sometimes it needs to be broken off into its own sentence. It's purely stylistic and personal taste, but as with everything personal, there is a limit to what you can get away with in public.

The problem with using short sentences in writing is that in dialogue people use long run-on sentences. This is especially true when writing YA stories. To break up such sentences is to force the dialogue to be something that it isn't and it becomes unrealistic. Go to a typical high school and listen to the way kids speak. You'll hear these two extremes: Lots of short sentences like, "Yeah, sure!" and long run-on sentences that leave the speaker almost out of breath at the end.

Colin :icon_geek:

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Go to a typical high school and listen to the way kids speak. You'll hear these two extremes: Lots of short sentences like, "Yeah, sure!" and long run-on sentences that leave the speaker almost out of breath at the end.

Colin :icon_geek:

Excellent point.

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The problem with using short sentences in writing is that in dialogue people use long run-on sentences.

Not necessarily. I think the truth about how people speak in real life is that there's a lot of awkward pauses, sentences that go nowhere, people overlapping and interrupting each other, a lot of clumsy phrasing... and I think if you wrote it all down, it'd be a huge mess as literature. I like to think writing can be similar to life, but (as more than one observer has noted) "with all the dull parts cut out." And that includes cleaning up grammar and sentence structure. I think as long as you capture the flavor and intent of what's being said, the reader will buy it.

If you go by how kids speak on TV, then you'd take 9 sentences and string them together with long pauses, "uh's," and "like's" connecting every sentence without a period, except at the very end. And usually it would end with a "ya know?"

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If you go by how kids speak on TV, then you'd take 9 sentences and string them together with long pauses, "uh's," and "like's" connecting every sentence without a period, except at the very end. And usually it would end with a "ya know?"

The kids on TV aren't real-life kids. But let's say they are, and the way they speak is the way you've described. Changing their dialogue into a series of short sentences will, in my opinion, change the flow of how they speak. Instead use (horrors!) ellipses and semicolons and commas and delay those horrid periods until the end of what they are trying to say.

Not all teen dialogue has to be run-on sentences because not everything, and not even most, of what teens say is made up of run-on sentences. But teens do speak using run-on sentences. I did it and still speak that way myself. In my opinion when in a story I'm writing there's a teen who speaks using run-on sentences, then the dialogue I write will show that by reproducing what I imagine their run-on sentences would be like. I think that makes my stories, most of which I write for a teen/YA audience, more authentic, more real, for my readers.

Colin :icon_geek:

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From the stage craft experience comes the following:

One person: Recitation, Narration, soliloquy or Monologue

Two or more persons: Dramatic dialogue in a vocal exchange, where the speakers alternate in argument, similar to a debate, or a play.

There is only one successful way for two or more persons to speak simultaneously conveying the effect of multiple arguments and that is in song, where song is defined as lyrical vocals in rhythmic form. Now before you disagree with this, think about any argument where, you have heard two or more people all talking to each other at once. There will be overlapping shouting, persuasive tones, frustration and even anger voiced; sometimes interrupted by other voices attempting reason and cooling cries from individuals or commentary from a chorus.

On stage, or more rarely on film, the actors will set a rhythmic cadence the sound of which, itself, enhances the meaning of the communication with the audience. This happens in natural conversation. It is also the method of liturgy and opera. However it is not confined to these, as it can be clearly heard in modern musical productions or even pop songs.

The difficulty for written stories is that conveying those overlapping voices is next to impossible because we can only read one person's dialogue at a time. Even play scripts have difficulty in actually writing dialogue in such a way as to convey which characters are speaking which words, and in what sequence they overlap each other. If a director has no ear for the overlapping dialogues, the rhythm of the interplay will not work and much of the drama will be lost. Sometimes the actors themselves will work it out and they tend to be the most successful at their craft.

Sophisticated presentations whether on film or stage, spoken or sung, rely on the interplay of the characters' dialogues, and that, we can write, but conveying the eloquence of many arguments being uttered simultaneously is even more intricate.

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In my opinion when in a story I'm writing there's a teen who speaks using run-on sentences, then the dialogue I write will show that by reproducing what I imagine their run-on sentences would be like. I think that makes my stories, most of which I write for a teen/YA audience, more authentic, more real, for my readers.

Colin :icon_geek:

All of us probably speak to one another in sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and false starts, with pauses, grunts, and other filler sounds thrown in. Listen, say, to a press conference broadcast on TV. Often the unrehearsed reply can be excruciating as the dignitary fumbles for words. As writers we can provide our reader with a taste of that confusion in the way we construct parts of the dialogue we write, in order to establish such a tone. But we cannot write dialogue continuously and exclusively in that formless way, because we would soon lose our ability to communicate anything other than tone. Successful writers are able to suggest a speech pattern with a few words and phrases scattered carefully here and there throughout dialogue, yet never losing sight of the responsibility to communicate and move the story forward through the use of grammatically sound sentences that make sense.

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One comment I received early on in my writing career was that the dialogue didn't have to be real. It only only had to feel real. As has been pointed out above, real speech is full of hesitations and filler words, but they're rarely needed for the author to convey the dialogue to the reader. Sometimes, yes they're needed, but most of the time they're not. In real life, we tend to filter out those hesitations and fillers, and it's the filtered dialogue that is generally what gets written into stories.

As for run-on sentences, I've got no real preference. Colin's statement above is a good example, though, of the options:

Not all teen dialogue has to be run-on sentences because not everything, and not even most, of what teens say is made up of run-on sentences. But teens do speak using run-on sentences.

That's two sentences, but I suspect that if were spoken, it would sound like one run-on sentence and that's the way I initially read it. It's like the classic "could of" for "could've". What might sound like a run-on sentence can sometimes be written as multiple sentences. Not always, but sometimes. Whether the author writes it as multiple sentences or as a single run-on sentence is up to that author. It's partially a stylistic question, with the only reservation being whether it makes it difficult for the reader to read. If it doesn't, then I see no problem with a run-on sentence in dialogue.

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The kids on TV aren't real-life kids. But let's say they are, and the way they speak is the way you've described. Changing their dialogue into a series of short sentences will, in my opinion, change the flow of how they speak.

Read my stuff and tell me if I do that. I practice what I preach, and I read an awful lot of published fiction.

As I've often said, the only real rule is to keep the story interesting and not bore the reader. The rest is just window dressing, and I think as long as you use taste and good instincts, a lot of different approaches will work. But I do wince whenever I come upon a long, long, long sentence in a dialogue scene, because I don't believe this is the way people really speak in real life. There are some literary giants who did this; it's been pointed out that no less than Dickens and Conan-Doyle would routinely write sentences of 30 or 40 words, because that was sometimes the literary style of the late 1800s. I personally lean more towards Ernest Hemingway, who has a much more punchy, short-sentence style (and he also started out as a journalist). I don't mind long sentences for description -- in fact, I think that's very necessary to establish certain kinds of mood -- but for dialogue, to me it winds up coming out as being long-winded. My take is: just get to the friggin' point.

I also agree 100% with everything Graeme says above. The key is really to feel real, rather than to be real. I think there's a way to do this with heart, with feeling, and with real emotion, and that can push the dialogue a long way. But the key is that the characters have to get into something real, and not just dilly-dally about superficial bullshit. I'm not saying every scene has to be about some life-threatening issue, but I think (getting back to the core topic), commas alone are the least of our worries. Just making the dialogue readable is a challenge, and I continue to believe that if the writer speaks it out loud, he or she will know very quickly if it works or not.

I'm reminded of a famous quip from actor Harrison Ford, who complained to writer/director George Lucas about some of the impenetrable dialogue in Star Wars: "George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it." I think Ford makes a very good point. Look at any movie script, and you'll see that nobody speaks in long sentences, because they're trying to be very true-to-life. (Generally speaking.)

http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/08/you-can-type-shit-you-sure-cant-say-it

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Provided dialogue works in the context of the story (remembering the story is all), then it really doesn't matter if it's of the the short and snappy, or long run-on variety ... does it?

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Pec, are you OK? Feeling good? No one has come in during the night and stolen your brain, have they? Maybe part of it?

There's no way you wrote this: As I’ve often said, the only real rule is to keep the story interesting and not bore the reader. The rest is just winndow dressing…

Come on now! How many times have I argued the very same point with you, after one of your forum diatribes about all the rules of writing there are? Ten? Twenty?

I’ve noticed lately either you’re coming around to my way of thinking, or I’m succumbing to yours. I’m sure it’s the former; too scary to think it’s the latter. But your last few posts—I’ve agreed with almost everything you’ve written. Scary indeed!

But, keep up the good work, and don’t regress. I like this new Pec.

Even if you don’t like that semi-colon I stuck in their just to keep your blood moving.

C

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There's no way you wrote this: As I’ve often said, the only real rule is to keep the story interesting and not bore the reader. The rest is just winndow dressing…

I've always felt this way, and I believe this was the final sentence of my 2001/2002 essay on "How to Write Gay Fiction": that the only rule that's absolutely etched in stone is don't bore the reader. (I would add to that, "the story should make sense and the characters should be ones with which you can empathize," but that's about it for iron-clad rules.)

I spoke to a pal of mine on the phone today who's been a professional writer and editor for 40 years, and I said, "hey, what would you do if you were editing a novel or short story where the characters were speaking in continuous unbroken sentences that had more than 30 or 40 words," and he laughed and said that he'd send it back as being unreadable or way too self-indulgent. Before I could even bring it up, he immediately did say, "of course, that was the convention in the 1800's" and brought up the examples of Dickens as well as adding Edgar Allan Poe, Louisa May Alcott, Herman Melville, and a few other classics. I don't think modern literature does this, not if you look at novels of the past 30-40 years.

I brought up the issue of commas, and he replied that he's confronted with writers who either don't use nearly enough commas, or use far too many. It's a good question as to which is "just right," and I don't doubt you could make very good arguments on several different criteria. He also pointed out that the modern trend for young people is going in the opposite direction of long sentences, probably brought on by Text messages, IM messages, Twitter, and stuff like that where you're reduced to a short number of characters and a lot of hip abbreviations. I hadn't even considered that, but I'm generally opposed to reproducing text messages in stories because I think it's too "showy" and flashy. I don't mind somebody writing, "I immediately shot back a text telling him to get stuffed, and we agreed to meet up later on." That at least doesn't go back and forth and back and forth and back and forth, which I think takes up too much time.

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What I've been ranting and writing about is a rule that one should never use run-on sentences. My argument is that, in dialogue, if it sounds right and it works to use a run-on sentence, then use a run-on sentence.

I think I've exhausted this topic. At least I'm exhausted by it.

Colin :icon_geek:

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There are rules? :unsure: When did this happen? :confused:

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What I've been ranting and writing about is a rule that one should never use run-on sentences. My argument is that, in dialogue, if it sounds right and it works to use a run-on sentence, then use a run-on sentence.

I'm tired, too! It's 3AM here in LA. I still think run-on sentences are lazy and fixable, plus they're just not necessary. Anything that can help the reader digest and understand the story better is a good thing.

I was appalled when the last few Harry Potter books had quite a few run-on sentences (as one recent example). This kind of thing never used to happen in the world of major-publisher best sellers. To me, it's just sloppy writing, especially if you can fix it with a semi-colon, an ellipse, or just starting a new sentence. It takes very little time, effort, or skill to spot stuff like that.

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