Let’s Not Eat Grandma

Commas seem to be the bane of many writers, and I’ve written numerous posts on their usage. I’ve even seen workshops devoted entirely to comma use. Yes, those tiny curly bits of punctuation can be intimidating!

You’ve probably heard that you need to use commas with speaker tags (“Go away,” Sally said). But you also need to use commas with direct address. There is a huge difference between the following sentences:

  • Let’s eat Grandma.
  • Let’s eat, Grandma.

So, that’s not too hard to get, right? Offset not just people’s names but anything (animal or object) in direct address:

  • Listen, you dumb computer—I’ve had it with you.
  • I will give you a biscuit, Fido, if you sit.
  • Hey, everyone, hurry up!
  • Please, sir, I’d like some more.

And just a reminder of something I’ve gone over before: be sure to capitalize professions in direct address:

  • Is that test correct, Doctor?
  • Take me home, Captain.
  • Yes, Boss.
  • No, Mother, I don’t want soup.
  • Go take out the trash, Son.

I hope, dear writer, you now understand the need to insert those commas in the right places. I, for one, don’t want to eat Grandma.

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    1. I can understand the reasons for capitalization. They seem unproblematic. My problem is too many commas. I assume that the publisher specifies, say, rules for the use of the serial comma. But how do I cut back on commas in straight narrative? Contemporary literary fiction uses far fewer commas than I do. Do I do too much qualifying of phrases? Should I leave the corrections to an editor?

      1. It takes a while to learn how to use commas correctly. Books on grammar will help you learn the rules (my Say What? book has quite a few simple entries like this one). Serial commas are important for clarity. But when you get into writing fiction, there may be times you want to use commas unconventionally (or omit them). Main point though is clarity. So be sure if you leave a comma out, the meaning is still clear. They are often crucial.

  1. Brilliant! Very helpful. When I had my first copy edit done on my book, the editor said, “Jazz, your comas are completely irratic.”

  2. Yes! Just last night I saw the words, “be sure and eat Robert!” in a Facebook comment, and it cracked me up. Of course, in context, it was obvious what the commenter MEANT, but because it looked so funny it distracted me from the rest of the comment. I know as a writer, the last thing I want is for my readers to be pulled out of the story by a laughable misuse (or non-use) of a punctuation mark.

  3. Recently a professional NZ writer made a good point about commas being very important to indicate pauses if you were speaking. He told me to read the passage as if I were speaking and insert the commas in those places. I, like so many people, had become sloppy. The lack of commas can be hilarious, like one which I won’t include as it’s a bit rude.

  4. A guy tried to leave a chatroom once (a NaNoWriMo chatroom no less) with “Off to shower bitches!” After that, we couldn’t let them leave because we just had to know why he was showering the poor bitches ;).

    It irks me to no end when I see things like:
    “Hi Martin,” Robert said.
    People that do that usually can’t understand why it’s wrong, no matter how hard you try to explain it. But at least there the rules are clear. Someone before mentioned style guides. I can’t say from personal experience, but I’ve heard those style guides are different for each publishing house, not necessarily grammatically correct and change like the fashion. One day it’s fashionable to have lots of commas, next day you’re told to get rid of it. Cases like:
    “This sentence, for instance, is an example.”
    “This sentence for instance is an example.”
    Personally, I’d flip if someone told me I couldn’t put commas in there to separate that inserted sentence fragment.

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