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Punctuation - flow vs grammar

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Sep 17, 2017.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    A comment I get now and then from readers is that my prose feels stiff and stilted. It's grammatically correct, but it's dry and lifeless.

    One of the reasons for this seems to be my use of punctuation. From what I understand you're meant to use a comma if you connect two clauses with a word like and or but. This seems simple enough, but it seems it can also disrupt the flow of the text.

    According to The Punctuation Guide, you can omit the comma when the two clauses are closely connected and short. That makes sense, but it also feels a bit arbitrary. How short is short, and how closely connected is closely connected?

    I get that this is something you'll have to judge on a case by case basis and that there's no hard and fast rule for it. It's a matter of taste and feel, right? Intuition.

    What are your thoughts on this? When do you make exceptions to the rule in favour of reading flow?

    Here's an example sentence:
    I originally wrote it like that, but I'd probably remove the comma here. The first clause is kinda short, and the two clauses can be said to be closely connected.
     
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  2. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I don't personally consider the comma here optional. In fact I would read it as being wrong.

    I would probably make that one two sentences. But it depends. I try to vary the sentence structure within a paragraph, so if the rest of the paragraph is short sentences, I would end up leaving it longer.

    Grammar and commas aren't going to be the solution to your language issues, though. Flow is the kind of thing that takes a course a crit partner or an writing exercises book to work on.
     
  3. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I have no problem in my own writing omitting or including commas wherever I want to in order to achieve a certain effect, and I see a fair amount of that in published writing. But I agree with Devor that this alone isn't sufficient for the proper flow.

    With the example sentence, either way would be fine with me. I'd probably write it without the comma if I were writing a lean, action-oriented story. Otherwise I may well leave it.
     
  4. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    Agreed, I think. The comma is necessary, but that structure isn't. I'd join the second with another clause, and leave it there or make the first clause standalone.

    Basically, it depends on context and the surrounding pattern. I always keep half an ear on the sentence rhythm, to the point of not consciously thinking about it anymore. (Of course that natural flow of mine is probably a little boggy). I don't think the solution should be to remove grammatically necessary/highly recommended commas. ...I mean, I've definitely done that while writing, but I wouldn't leave it that way in a finished, polished piece. Just because there are so many other options for varying flow that wouldn't have the possibility of raising a "is this proofread?" flag in the reader's mind.

    As I'm thinking about this, of course there are exceptions. But like any stylistic boundary-push, I'd leave it for situations where you want to emphasize the language for extra drama or rush of pace. Not for an average dialogue-tag.

    Edit to add:

    Doesn't need to be longer either. There's always a lot of options.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think it depends on what you're writing. If you read a lot of thrillers, or even faster-paced horror novels where the action is always moving quickly, you see the elimination of commas that are technically necessary (as well as other instances of ignoring rules of grammar) all the time. This is in the most popular examples of these works, sold by large publishers. And, of course, if you're writing in a modernist style, or utilizing a stream of consciousness in your approach, you will likely adapt the grammar to fit the narrative style. There are little, if any, hard and fast rules here. It's about what you can make work. If dropping punctuation works for the narrative, that's fine. If restructuring works better, then you go with that.

    If examples in modern thriller writing aren't compelling, see also Hemingway, who omitted commas all the time (for example, by running together multiple independent clauses without them or any other punctuation).

    Within genre, John Scalzi talks about this, and about how when copy editors put commas into his work on strictly grammatical grounds (which he admits they're supposed to do), he takes them out again as a matter of pace and style.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Fascinating discussion.

    I'm mostly of the camp that says use the comma before the conjunction when you have two independent clauses, but I've found myself naturally wanting to eliminate it sometimes—a kind of instinctual, knee-jerk reaction—when in my head the clauses aren't quite independent things. In my lackadaisical commenting on forums, I sometimes do eliminate the comma, without much concern. But the thought gives me a little more trouble when writing something I'm wanting polished.

    I think the suggestion others have given is good: a sentence can be rewritten to remove the instinctual doubt heh.

    But something like this (maybe?) doesn't trouble me as much, and I've encountered it before:

    Sylvia opened her mouth and the music flowed.*

    I can't say I'm 100% comfortable with that, I'm not sure it's a great example, but I can't remember specific examples off-hand.

    In a case like that, "opened her mouth" and "the music flowed" are essentially identical things. At least, written like that, the implication would be that they are what you called "closely related," and the author might want to signal that these actions are inseparable, basically identical.

    The example from the site you linked is interesting:

    Elizabeth flew to the conference and Nancy drove.

    Reading that, I'd have no problems. I'd probably not even notice there's a missing comma. How are these "closely related"? The narrator seems to to be describing one thing, as if asked, "How did the two get to the conference?" Even if not asked, the implication is that only one thing is being described, i.e., their "joined" trip to the conference (not really a joint trip.) I suppose you could rewrite it like this:

    Elizabeth flew to the conference while Nancy drove.

    —Although there, it's weird because it makes the plane trip and road trip seem to happen entirely concurrently, the trip lasting just as long by plane and car.

    If I were trying to separate these two independent clauses to create contrast, I'd use the comma:

    Elizabeth flew to the conference, but Nancy drove.

    *Edit: Come to think of it, if I used that sentence in a story...and I've been trying to "feel" how it would appear...I think it'd work if the act of Sylvia's singing were already introduced before the sentence. So suppose someone is threatening her with something and says she must sing or else, but she's resisting. Then she sees the fear in the eyes of the sister she's supposed to be protecting. So she opens her mouth and sings.

    A standalone sentence without that kind of foreshadowing or intro might not work as well....
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  7. Nimue

    Nimue Auror

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    True. My experience is limited by the fact that I haven't read many thrillers, and have no desire to re-read Hemingway. However, based on what I've read of Svrtnsse's writing, and knowing that he's writing in a kind of folktale-fantasy genre, perhaps somewhat slower-paced stories (if I'm not mistaken), I don't think leaving out commas is necessary. Although Svrt is experimenting with style? Yeah, it always depends. An editor who understands your work is the best bet.
     
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  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    What would you do with the following:

    “Often Miss Stein would have no guests and she was always very friendly and for a long time she was affectionate.”

    That's a line from a Hemingway story. It's a fairly typical example of what some people have called Hemingway's "war on commas." I don't agree with the war on them--other writers I like, like Joseph Conrad, used them with great proliferation. But in the Hemingway example, if you put in commas where they're supposed to go I think it screws things up.
     
  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Folktales strike me as typically exhibiting a more formal writing style. I'd be open to one written in a more lean, modern style, but if the story goes back and forth between the two--some portions written more formally, and suddenly changing--I'd be less likely to go with it. When I think of fantasy stories that are in the vein of fairy tales, I often think of Angela Carter, who wrote anything but lean prose.
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    The Hemingway example feels like a list to me, heh. Tell me what you had for dinner. I had steak and mashed potatoes and cream corn. Tell me about Miss Stein. She would have no guests and she was always very friendly and for a long time she was affectionate.

    Heh. That's just my feeling, or how I experience that sentence.

    There's another term, I don't remember it, for the opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, in which independent clauses are linked only by commas and no conjunction. Maybe it's anaphora, although that's a repetition of the first words in successive clauses (just looked that up, heh), so I'm not sure it's 100% applicable to this discussion. But it "relates" those clauses, so maybe there's something similar happening. But the Hemingway example isn't the same, unless the relation is "about Miss Stein," a kind of bullet list heh.
     
  11. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Maybe it reads like a list because of the way he wrote it? In any event, Hemingway did this a lot, sometimes in situations that may be more list-like, and others that aren't. There's no doubt in my mind it changes the pacing. Which doesn't mean anyone has to like the approach (or Hemingway, or any other author that uses it). Whether one likes it or not, I don't agree with calling it out as "wrong." It's an approach to writing that individual writers may or may not be able to use effectively, and that individual readers may or may not like.
     
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Maybe instead of calling it out as "wrong," we could call it out at "ineffective" or "confusing" or whatever when it comes from the hand of a less experienced and talented writer than Hemingway. On a case-by-case basis—not in the case of the writer, but the case of what has been written by that writer.

    I do think that personal style plays a large role. Punctuation is an add-on in the history of writing, filled with conventions by now, and style manuals didn't exist early in our long history of using the written word. Many of the oldest writings don't use any punctuation (or paragraphs, for that matter, or consistent spelling for many words.)
     
  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, I think as a general way of gauging this, my thought is that if you're sacrificing clarity (i.e. confusing the reader) then you've got a problem, and you've got to go back and do something different. If a writer isn't sacrificing clarity, then I don't have any problem with it. The purpose of writing is to communicate effectively what one means to say. If that goal is accomplished, I think other considerations are secondary.

    I should note, though, that I do tend to use commas for lists, including the Oxford comma, precisely because I think it ensures clarity. At least in more formal writing.
     
  14. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    What I'm taking away from this so far is that there is room for exceptions and for breaking the rules when it works or when it's necessary. It's been done in the past, it's happening still, but it has to work within the context of the story.
    What I'm also hearing loud and clear is that rephrasing or rewriting the sentence in question should be considered and may be a better option.

    What FifthView mentioned about sometimes wanting to eliminate the comma happens to me too. It sometimes just doesn't feel right to have it there. At some point in the past I came across a series of rants about comma usage and started paying more attention to putting them in where they should be. I put it down to perhaps not having a good enough feel for the language, and I figured it'd be safer to stick with the rules.

    I'm no longer so sure.

    As Nimue points out, this is from a story where I'm experimenting with styles and language use. I intentionally break punctuation rules in plenty of places in order to achieve certain effects. The example in the original post is not one of those places. The full paragraph reads:
    As you see, it's a dialogue beat. It's not massively important and rewriting it isn't a big deal.


    EDIT:
    Here's another example where I've intentionally left out a whole load of commas:
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
  15. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    Neither of these is grammatically incorrect.
    The only issue here is whether you, the author, want to create a pause for the reader before the second clause. If your prose feels stilted to your reader, and they've pointed out your use of commas as one culprit, it may be that your creating pauses that don't feel natural to the reader. It may also be that you're simply creating unnatural pauses too often (an unnatural pause can be a useful tool). I'd have to see a much larger sample to judge for myself.

    ****

    There was some discussion earlier regarding independent clauses, so I wanted to address that point also.

    The danger in joining two independent clauses without a comma + conjunction, is the creation of a comma splice. A comma splice is regarded (in English, at least, but not all languages) as grammatically incorrect. I've been told by several agents/editors that if they see comma splices in a submitted work, it's a sure sign of a writer who isn't ready.

    A comma splice is the joining of two independent clauses without a conjunction. The examples provided by the OP are not independent clauses. The first clause leads to the second. That's why the author has the freedom to create the pause with a comma, or do without to benefit flow, and still be grammatically correct. The author might also choose to separate both clauses with a period to form two sentences, or even utilize a semicolon (see semicolon use below). Again, your choice should depend on the desired effect.

    Some examples of grammatically incorrect comma splicing:

    In the examples above, you must join the independent clauses together with a comma + conjunction, separate them with a period, or if there is a close logical connection, use a semicolon to join the independent clauses.

    The case of using a semicolon might look like this:
    Note: The above is grammatically correct. However, consider the point that most people do not regularly use semicolons. They aren't commonly understood, and therefore, their use may be jarring to your reader. I avoid semicolons completely due to this consideration. If you choose to use them, I'd recommend sparing use.
     
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  16. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    This works for me.

    How do I explain this effect? :D

    These things are a jumble in her mind. They're all related–but how? Just breathe.

    Edit: Funny, that "just breathe." No commas for breath, heh.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
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  17. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    This is a comma splice:
    Does the effect you're aiming for change by using the grammatically correct period?

    Like this:
    Say them both aloud. You'll see the cadence and sound is the same, so be grammatically correct here.

    In this example, beginning with a conjunction is technically a grammatical error. However, beginning with a conjunction, especially in dialogue, is acceptable in creative writing because you're trying to depict natural speech. It's how people talk.
    Note: You might not want to do it a lot though.

    The next example:
    I'd have no issue with this as a reader. Though there are other ways to achieve a similar effect.

    Like this, for example:
    Point being... Yes, break grammatical rules to achieve a desired effect. There are many ways to skin that cat. Just make sure you understand those grammar rules so you're not breaking them unconsciously.
     
    Last edited: Sep 17, 2017
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  18. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    Thanks TAS for the correction there. I'd probably have missed that otherwise.
     
  19. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yes, but Elmore Leonard probably never met a comma splice he didn't like, and they're fairly common in works within the same genre (though not only in that genre), so I'd be a bit leery of anyone who had an absolute prohibition against them given the popularity of authors who use them. I think we're back to whether something works or not.
     
  20. I don't know anything about grammar honestly. My friend tried to proofread an essay I sent him and I wasn't even sure what he was talking about in a lot of his suggestions. I don't know the rules or the proper terms for anything.

    Everything is instinct for me, which means I do bend the rules...a lot. Sometimes I have wholly ungrammatical sections of text that are just denoting my character's state of mind. I really don't care whether my use of commas is correct or not; I use them as I see fit to make my sentences sound the way I want.
     
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