Commas ‘n’ sh*t

by Pari Noskin Taichert

So I’m sitting on the can reading BE COOL by Elmore Leonard and come across this quote: "You just put down what you want to say, then you get somebody to add the commas and shit, fix up the spelling if it needs it. The way this one’s going I think it’ll write itself."

Chili Palmer and his buddy Elaine are discussing writing screenplays, but the whole enchilada gets me thinking about punctuation (after I scoff at the idea that anything writes itself. Yeah, right.).

Many posts on Murderati have to do with the art of creating crime fiction — and our blog’s readers enjoy these insights — but commas, well, they affect us all. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing the Great American Novel or a thank-you to Grandma Rose, you put a comma in the wrong place and your meaning gets shot to smithereens.

Don’t get me started on misplaced periods. And colons? Forgettaboutit.

I bet everyone reading this post, everyone surfing the Internet, has some bugaboo — some grammatical tic — that makes him or her seem super-special or sound super-stupid.

Me? I’m a recovered ellipses addict.

Right now, I’m fond of the em-dash. My first drafts always look like abacuses, those little lines are — well — everywhere. (Parentheses can make life worth living sometimes.) Commas are pretty fun, too. No, really, I mean it. And, a couple of years ago I learned about the joys of semicolons and now I can’t seem to stop myself from using them for lists; to clarify divisions between commas; to connect two similar thoughts; to spice things up. If you get my drift.

I’m not even going to get into misspellingg; that’s totally, like, digesting. (No. I didn’t mean that.) Disgusting. (Yeah, that’s it.) Oh, and that leads me to using the wrong word. Talk about a criminal. (Darnit! Did it again.) It’s a crime.

And then there are all the rules we break on porpoise, um, purpose. But, you must know what I’m talking about here. Sentence fragments. The prepositions that other sentences end on.

Yet, I’ve never been interested in studying books about commas ‘n’ sh*t. I think some mistakes, or deliberate grammatical snubs, make for good reading.

The problem is when the reader becomes too aware of the tricks, when the punctuation distracts from the storytelling. I don’t care if it shows a writer’s cleverness or devotion to propriety — if I notice the punctuation/grammar — I’m knocked out of the read. And, I usually resent it.

So, what about all of you?
What grammatical crimes do you consistently commit?
Which ones drive you bonkers when you see them in someone else’s work?

29 thoughts on “Commas ‘n’ sh*t

  1. Peter

    I have a theory based on considerable experience that punctuation marks, like clothes, have their own cycles of fashion. A few years ago the semi-colon was the en-vogue substitute for the comma. These days, writers who want to express themselves through punctuation prefer the em-dash. It’s not just you. But when in doubt, a comma is always tasteful and never out of style — as long as one uses it correctly.

    And have you noticed that articles about “quality content” on blogs inevitably commit at least one gross grammatical or word error repeatedly? The last one I read kept referring to the “reknowned” this and the “reknown” that.==============Detectives Beyond Borders”Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  2. billie

    I am fond of ellipses and em-dashes, especially in first drafts, but much of that gets pared down by the final draft so I can let go of the punctuation.

    I don’t recall getting annoyed lately by punctuation in books I’m reading. But just yesterday I was thrilled anew when something prompted me to pull Cormac McCarthy off the shelf. I get a big thrill out of the way he defies so many conventions in his writing.

    And how well that works.

  3. Naomi

    I commit many grammatical crimes. Love semicolons, love em-dashes. When Kurt Vonnegut died recently, I came across this quote from him:

    “[D]o not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    I can’t stand ellipses. People think that they mean a speaker is pausing, but it signals that material is being excluded and I’m always curious about what is left out.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Peter,I think you’re right about those cycles of fashion. The em-dash is definitely *in* right now, but I’m still trying to control it in my own work; it’s too easy to use.

    Re: articles about “quality content”Can you give me an example (maybe privately)? I’d be very interested.

    Billie,I think there are certain things that stamp the text as amateur. Often, IMHO, too many ellipses say tell me that the writer is inexperienced.

    Of course there are exceptions.

    I’m thinking of our own Ken. His distinctive posts always defy our conventions to great effect.

  5. billie

    Pari, LOL – I tend to use ellipses all the time in correspondence. Not in the final drafts of novels. I think my fondness for them comes from seeing them almost as a segue into another “realm” for want of a better word.

    I.e. this is what’s happening here… and many other unknown but connected things are going on in many other places.

    In a first draft ellipses are shorthand to myself to go deeper later on. As Naomi says, they signal me to fill in what’s missing.

    This is a tangent – punctuation errors don’t bug me as much as too many dialogue tags. Put in he said/she said more than a couple of times and I start getting bug-eyed.

  6. toni mcgee causey

    I love the serial commas… and ellipses. And starting sentences or fragments with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Which can drive some people batty. Their–damn it–There are times I have a terrible habit of substituting homonyms for the word I meant to sue, er, use, and like that example, just simply typed a rhyming word without realizing it ’til I re-read the passage. If the words flow, though, if the imagery carries the reader along and the style gets them there, then I think it’s a good think… or thing.

  7. Rae

    The grammar crime that drives me wild is ‘of’ rather than ‘have’, as in “I should of called her” or “If I could of done it, I would of”. Gak.

    And clunky dialog is one of the few things that will cause me to stop reading a book. There are some really good story-tellers out there whose books I simply can’t pick up because the dialog gets on my last nerve.

  8. pari

    Hey, Paul,I’m off now. Of course, I also had to deal with my computer power supply burning out this morn. Was it fate? Was it Karma?

  9. pari

    Billie,Here is one of my all time favorite poems. It’s by e.e. cummings — another person who defied punctuation and made my heart sing.

    Read this one out loud.

    may i feel said hemay i feel said he(i’ll squeal said shejust once said he)it’s fun said she

    (may i touch said hehow much said shea lot said he)why not said she

    (let’s go said henot too far said shewhat’s too far said hewhere you are said she)

    may i stay said he(which way said shelike this said heif you kiss said she

    may i move said heis it love said she)if you’re willing said he(but you’re killing said she

    but it’s life said hebut your wife said shenow said he)ow said she

    (tiptop said hedon’t stop said sheoh no said he)go slow said she

    (cccome?said heummm said she)you’re divine!said he(you are Mine said she)

  10. pari

    Toni,Great comment. Made me laugh . . .And, that’s what I meant about punctuation/grammar getting in the way. When it doesn’t, it can enhance the reading experience.

    Rae,Coulda, shoulda, woulda.I know what you mean about that “of” vs “have” and it also knocks me out of the the story.

    Dialog is so important to me that I really notice when it doesn’t work.

    Louise,Your comment was exactly what I’d expect — concise and funny. I hope other people will have fun with this, too.

  11. Mike MacLean

    I’m with Simon on the em dashes. Working with the Final Draft screenwriting program might cure me of it though.

    Every time I used an em dash, the dreaded red underline appeared. I swear by my MLA handbook I was using them correctly, yet I couldn’t get rid of those lines. I threw in commas instead, and I don’t think it changed the tone of the sentences one bit.

    Love the Vonnegut quote.

  12. pari

    Mike,I think em-dashes stand out more on the page and that’s why they attract attention. Perhaps someone can correct me here, but I think they can be used interchangeably with commas when bracketing a sub-phrase (um, I know I’m not using the correct term here. Someone please help!).

  13. Neil Plakcy

    I had a student this past semester who was fond of irregular punctuation. His papers were full of em dashes, ellipses, exclamation points, etc. I had the hardest time convincing him that English comp was not creative writing– that if he was going to be writing business reports or resume cover letters, he had to learn standard punctuation.

    It took the whole term, but I finally beat those ellipses out of him!


  14. JT Ellison

    What a great post, Pari!

    I find that I’m much guiltier of laxity in personal correspondence than the actual manuscript writing. I overuse exclamation points and ellipses, but in my drafts, I stick with short and sweet. Revisions include putting in more periods and taking out commas. The em-dash for emphasis, a couple ellipses here and there, but not nearly as horrible as my emails and blog entries.

    Grammatically though, as my first reader will tell you, I have issues with that damn apostrophe after character names that end in s. And what do I do? I keep naming them with these ridiculous names, I think subconsciously praying I figure it out.

  15. Peter

    Someone mentioned using the ellipsis symbol to signify that a speaker has broken off in the middle of a thought. That person was right; used that way, the three dots can be confusing, since they can also stand for a gap in quoted material.

    The accepted symbol to indicate a thought that breaks off is our old friend, the em dash, doing what it’s good at and what it’s meant for.

    “Why, you lowdown, thieving, spawn of the — “

    “Is that any way to talk to your mother?”

    Pari, em dashes and commas are not quite interchangeable for breaking off a sub-phrase. Em dashes generally signal a stronger break than commas, a weaker one than parentheses. Words set off by em dashes are generally more closely related to the main sentence than words set off by parentheses. Em dashes might set off an aside in a passage of dialogue or exposition, for example.

    I’ll try to verify the name of the blogging article that repeatedly misused reknown for renown. I can’t remember if it’s the article I have in mind, or whether it’s an article to which I linked from that one. If i’m going to slander someone’s reputation, I want to make sure I’m accurate.

    “Of” for “have” drives me nuts, too, but perhaps not for the reason you’d expect. I think some writers are aware of the mistake but use it deliberately to indicate a rough or uncultured speaker. But that use has grown hackneyed.

    ==============Detectives Beyond Borders”Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  16. pari

    Neil,Great to see you here!!!!!! 🙂

    I completely forgot about exclamation points and how their frequent use drives me up a wall.

    J.T.,I’m grinning. The apostrophe really looks weird when you use many Spanish surnames: Gonzalez, Sanchez, Casados and so forth.

    Peter,Thank you for the clarification re: em dashes. Not only do I overuse them, I frequently use them incorrectly (ouch).

  17. Alexandra Sokoloff

    All right, I admit it, I’m too lazy and pressed for time to look up the grammatical name for this TRULY annoying writing tic, but you all know it, I’m sure:

    “Panting, she grabbed for the whip…”

    “Tightening his belt, he strode for the door…”

    “Looking around, he started up the staircase…”

    UGH. That construction might be a necessary shortcut in screenwriting, but in a novel, it’s just bad writing, and too many of those will make me abandon the book.

  18. John S

    Do you remember the professor who figured out that the ‘Anonymous’ author of PRIMARY COLORS was Joe Klein? The government called him in to try and figure out other unattributed manuscripts like the Unabomber Manifesto and the Anthrax notes. He solved these mysteries using just those kinds of punctuation and word choice habits as clues. Fascinating. I think he wrote a book about it called AUTHOR UNKNOWN.


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