I’m the annoying person who, until she learned to be more polite, corrected people for saying “Mom and me” instead of “Mom and I” and “less” instead of “fewer” and “who” instead of “whom.” Now I work out my irritating grammar obsession through copy editing. I’ve been the copy editor for the undergrad lit mag Atlantis for almost six months now, and within that short amount of time, I have learned that the greatest grammar atrocity committed by the average writer is misuse of the comma.
Admittedly, commas are slippery little assholes, and sometimes their placement can be arbitrary at best. Admittedly, also, intentional misuse of commas can be skillfully deployed in order to alter style, tone, voice, or mood of writing. But you need to know the rules before you break them.
Here are four comma mistakes that drive me nuts.
1. The Comma Splice
The mother of all comma catastrophes, the comma splice—while occasionally used intentionally—is most often a harbinger of cringeworthy confusion.
Incorrect: Maria hated pixies with a passion, she wanted to spray them all with ant killer and be done with it.
Correct: Maria hated pixies with a passion, and she wanted to spray them all with ant killer and be done with it. OR: Maria hated pixies with a passion, so much so that she wanted to spray them all with ant killer and be done with it.
A comma, though versatile, is a relatively weak piece of punctuation, and it can’t balance two independent clauses on its own.
2. But, Mom!
I’m not sure that it has a name, but this one crops up almost as frequently as the classic splice. For some reason, people always want to stick a comma after “but.”
Incorrect: Leslie wanted to go to the zoo to see the weretigers but, she had too much xenobiology homework to catch up on.
Correct: Leslie wanted to go to the zoo to see the weretigers, but she had too much xenobiology homework to catch up on.
I’ll let you in on a secret: no one wants to be on the receiving end of a butt, and commas don’t want to be on the receiving end of a “but.” They always come before, except in cases where an author interposes an adjectival or adverbial phrase post-“but”:
Correct: Leslie wanted to go to the zoo to see the weretigers, but, having skipped class last week to watch the third moon’s lunar eclipse, she had too much xenobiology homework to catch up on.
3. The Ambiguous “And”
“And” is, like the comma, beautifully versatile, but that also makes it very annoying. As a conjunction, it joins all sorts of things. When it joins two independent clauses, it gets the comma-before treatment, but when it joins two objects, phrases, or other non-clauses, it does not.
Incorrect: Jared went to the store to buy ice cream, and set his ex-girlfriend’s hair on fire.
Because the second part of that sentence contains no subject–“Jared” or “he”–it is not a second clause. The “and” is joining twin verbs (and all the stuff that follows the verbs). Thus…
Correct: Jared went to the store to buy ice cream and set his ex-girlfriend’s hair on fire.
Also Correct: Jared went to the store for ice cream, and he set his ex-girlfriend’s hair on fire.
4. Dialogue Mishaps
In dialogue, the comma problem is often that writers forget to use one where they should. For example:
Incorrect: “I wanted to join the circus.” Keith said. “But they wouldn’t take me because I have flat feet.”
Correct: “I wanted to join the circus,” Keith said, “but they wouldn’t take me because I have flat feet.”
Keith’s dialogue is one long sentence, and the interjection of “Keith said” is a pause set off by commas. The sentence does not end with a period until the end of what Keith is saying.
Incorrect: “I wanted to join the circus,” Keith said, “they wouldn’t take me because I have flat feet.”
In the above case, you are basically committing a comma splice within dialogue. If you take out “Keith said” and change nothing else, that’s what you have left, which is why the coordinating conjunction “but” is required. Or, alternatively…
Correct: “I wanted to join the circus,” Keith said. “They wouldn’t take me because I have flat feet.”
“”I wanted to join the circus'” is one full sentence coming from Keith’s mouth, which is why we can put the period after “Keith said.” The second sentence of dialogue is a new and independent one, which is why it can stand on its own, starting with a capital T in “They.”
This is not an exhaustive list of comma mistakes that make your copy editor want to cry–it is only a list of things that come immediately to mind when I think of comma mistakes that make me, as a copy editor, want to cry. Copy editors exist for a reason, and writing comes before mechanics–but if you can learn to fix these few mistakes as you make them, your copy editor will love and respect you all the more.