Today the Dragon Wins

"Today the Dragon Wins" offers information from Fantasy Author and Professional Editor Sandy Lender. You'll also find dragons, wizards, sorcerers, and other fantasy elements necessary for a fabulous story, if you know where to look...

My Photo
Location: Misbehaving in Candlelight

Sandy Lender is the editor of an international trade publication and the author of the fantasy novels Choices Meant for Gods and Choices Meant for Kings, available from ArcheBooks Publishing, and the series-supporting chapbook, What Choices We Made.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Grammar Guide
Punctuate for Clarity, Part III, Commas

(Ed. note: I do not use serial commas in this article, pursuant to AP style.)

In the last Grammar Guide, we discussed the use of the serial comma, which is the last comma before the conjunction in a series (or list) of items. For Standard English grammar, which most of us use, the serial comma is used. But there are other times when the comma can be a dodgy item. You stare at it, dangling there like a misplaced participle, and you wonder, should I delete that?

Here’s the thing to remember about commas. They are used to add clarity. They set off phrases from the rest of the sentence to reduce clutter and make things clearer for the reader. For example, the following piece of paragraph is taken from a deleted scene from Choices Meant for Gods. Nigel and Chariss are visiting in the stables the morning after his brush with death, and the gentleman has contrived a way to run his fingers through her hair.

Example: He stroked his fingers down her tresses, all the way through to the ends where the curves and waves ended in little rolls that mimicked the wavecaps rushing to Arcana’s shore. By the gods, he wanted to feel those ends tickling along his chest, like they had last night, when she’d leaned over him to heal the wound that should have killed him. He moved one hand back to the top of her head, fully aware that she’d just shivered at this unfamiliar touch. Oh, that’s got to be a good sign, he thought.

I want to call your attention to the first comma in the example. The comma separates the complete phrase “He stroked his fingers down her tresses” and the incomplete phrase “all the way, etc.”

Look also at the third sentence. The comma in that sentence separates the complete phrase “He moved one hand back to the top of her head” and “fully aware, etc.” In both of these sentences, the comma comes after a complete phrase. The phrases could be ended with periods. The commas replace the periods I could have used and signify that more is to come. The "more" the reader gets is an additional phrase that modifies what he has already read. In the first instance, “all the way through, etc.” tells how Nigel stroked his fingers down her tresses. In the second instance, “fully aware that she’d just shivered” describes “He.”

In the final sentence, the comma before “he thought” is used to set off attribution, which will be discussed in the Grammar Guides about punctuating quotation in dialogue in the coming days.

Another use of the comma is another form of separating phrases, but it has to do with changing subjects. For instance, when you have two complete sentences, but you want to combine them, you can do something like this:

Example: Chariss put her arm out to catch him. He experienced that momentary shock of lightning when he got to touch her.

It can be changed to read more fluidly as, example: Chariss put her arm out to catch him, and he experienced that momentary shock of lightning when he got to touch her.

The comma signifies that the subject is going to change in the second half of this sentence. I’ve seen people make mistakes with this construction, though. Be sure that you’re actually combining two sentences (two subjects and two verbs) or the use of the comma before the conjunction is incorrect.

Example: Chariss put her arm out to catch him and felt a momentary shock of lightning at the touch.

In this example, Chariss is the one catching, touching and feeling the momentary shock of lightning. The subject doesn’t change, even though there is more than one verb. In the first example, Chariss did the catching, but the subject changed to Nigel in the second half of the sentence. Nigel did the touching and feeling of the momentary shock of lightning. (And isn’t that sweet?)

For Standard English grammar resources, I recommend Creative Writer's Handbook (fourth edition) by Philip K. Jason (a friend of mine) and Allan B. Lefcowitz (available from and Eats, Shoots & Leaves The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (available from

(Sandy Lender has been an editor in the magazine publishing industry for sixteen years, is an editor in the book publishing industry and is the author of the epic fantasy novel Choices Meant for Gods, available from

"Some days, I just want the dragon to win."
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Labels: , ,


Anonymous Sally said...

Great Grammatical points, I know I always get confused over my use of commas! Thanks for clarifying.

6:39 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home