Comma sense

Many of you may have seen this last week, when it was all over social media:

Rachel Ray


I think I’ll stay away from Rachel’s meat loaf.

Call it the tyranny of the comma if you like, but that tiny punctuation mark exists for a very good reason, as demonstrated here.  Even among fine writers, it has become neglected of late, and that is a shame, because it clearly carries great power. Lynne Truss’s EATS, SHOOTS AND LEAVES is an entire book dedicated to the science of punctuation, and to the demons it can unleash when improperly used.

I recently read a Middle Grade manuscript that was truly impressive—good writing, a terrific plot, suspenseful storytelling. The trouble was, it took me twice as long to read as it should have, because the author had no conception of how to use commas. That meant that I had to go back and read nearly every sentence twice in order to grasp  its correct meaning. As an agent, I cannot present a manuscript to an acquiring editor if it’s in that state. I did take the author on as a client, because the book was superb–but I had to insist that the manuscript be professionally proofread and line-edited first, with an eye specifically on punctuation.

If you know or suspect that you’ve got problems with punctuation, have the final version of your manuscript thoroughly proofread and corrected before you show it to any industry professional. Some of us may give up after only a page or two when a manuscript is riddled with this problem. We may even give up after reading just the query letter. I have to be a real schoolmarm about this issue, because commas are as important to a strong sentence as words are. They are the pins that keep it firmly anchored on the clothesline. You don’t want it slipping off and falling into the mud. 

2 Responses to Comma sense

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Or it could be that some hourly-wage font setter forget the “for” at the beginning of the subheading. At any rate, you see little screwups like this on blogsite comments a fair amount, (I mangled a sentence about a month back on this one that it still bugs me to think about) but those are impulsive and coffee-fueled and shouldn’t show up in a finished piece for publication. Basically, I’m of the opinion that if you care at all about the quality of your expressive ability, social media is not your friend; the person who set this Rachel Ray cover probably tweets constantly and inhales energy drinks. (And has an attention span of about 30 seconds and counting…)

  2. Lynn says:

    I’m not sure if I can post this here (feel free to delete) but it reminds me of a hilarious post on Facebook a few years ago:

    Robby: At the hospitel n my grandpa is still sick n i have to watch him f*$#&! a man tonite is gunna suck.

    Mason: Hey Robby, i think a comma would help here.

    Robby: Dats f*$#&! up man my grandpa already sick n the last thing he need is to be put in a comma f*$#&! you man.

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