Grammar and usage for writers: Commas (Part II)

The punctuation party continues today, and do you know what makes commas even more fun? Teen romance and muuurder, of course! So today’s post will feature Violet Ambrose and Jay Heaton from Kimberly Derting‘s “The Body Finder.”

1. Use a comma for coordinate adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives are adjectives that are equally important. You can recognize them in a sentence by doing this simple test: Reverse the order of the adjectives and see if it still makes sense. To make things more clear, you could also reverse the order of the adjectives and insert “and” in between them to check.

  • Violet runs down the long, narrow path. (A comma is required here because we could just as easily write this sentence as “Violet runs down the narrow and long path” or Violet runs down the narrow, long path” without changing the sentence’s meaning.)
  • Violet has gorgeous, natural curls. Violet has natural, gorgeous curls.

*However, don’t go sticking in commas every time you’re piling up a couple of adjectives. Not everything reverses!

  • She went to school in a concrete block building. (A “concrete block building” can’t be changed to a “block concrete building.” That wouldn’t make any sense!)

2. Use a comma in series to separate elements.

  • Violet wants to catch the catch the killer, save lives, and kiss Jay. (simple series)

*Depending on what style you write in, you could opt not to include the Oxford comma. As a journalist who lives and dies by AP Style (aka “the journalists’ bible), I rarely ever use it, but it’s common in the publishing industry. For my full explanation of the Oxford comma, click here.

  • Depending on the body she senses, Violet can see imprints, taste and smell imprints, or hear imprints. (series with embedded conjunction in one element)

*Assuming Violet is able to only 1. see imprints, 2. taste and smell imprints — as one element — and 3. hear imprints, this is how we would write that sentence. This next example makes it a little more clear:

  • I cooked vegetarian meatloaf, peas and carrots, and potatoes. (“Peas and carrots” is one element, so even if you opt not to use the Oxford the comma in your writing, you would have to here because it’s necessary to clarify that there are three items in this list, not four.)

But what if you just have a really long, convoluted sentence?

  • When Violet is being chased through the woods by the killer, I wonder whether she’ll manage to outrun him, whether he’ll tackle her and she’ll have to fight him off with her bare hands and whatever weapons she can find, and whether Jay will finally appear on the scene and come to her rescue. (long, complicated sentence)

If you use the Oxford comma, you’re probably thinking, “I’d include that last comma anyway, but if you’re an AP Style addict like myself, then you’d probably drop that serial comma in for clarification purposes. However, a comma actually isn’t required. This is really a judgment call.

Let’s take a look at one more:

  • Violet used to seek out the bodies of dead animals, she would bury them in Shady Acres, and Jay would help her build headstones for the graves. (series of independent clauses)

Here, we don’t need a comma for clarification because the thoughts are pretty straightforward; however, each element of that series is an independent clause and therefore requires the Oxford comma.

That’s it for today! Now that you’ve learned a thing or two about commas, reward yourself by heading over to my previous post to enter to win a copy of Veronica Roth’s “Insurgent!”

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