Let's Talk More About Commas

I wrote in a previous blog post about how commas can really change the entire meaning of a sentence, depending on where they are places. Gone are the days of putting in a comma everywhere one would pause or take a breath (something my 6th grade English teacher used to tell me).

Instead, one should use as few commas as possible, while keeping the intent of the writing. Too much punctuation can be as confusing as too little punctuation, and a writing littered with commas can be cluttered and hard to understand.

My previous example about how commas can change meaning had to do with the comment about what my friend and fellow writer and editor, Jennifer Walker, said to me:

Thanks for listening to me bitch.

Vs.

Thanks for listening to me, bitch.

With one of these sentences, Jennifer is sincerely thanking me, and with the other, she would be sincerely insulting me. Both sentences make sense, but they both mean different things.

Well, today, I was working on my latest novel, The Missing File, and I came across another sentence I can use as an example about how important proper comma placement is.

The sentence originally was:

Rebecca exited and crossed the lobby to the other set of elevators, nodding a smile in lieu of greeting to the receptionist who was on the phone.

And I changed it to:

Rebecca exited and crossed the lobby to the other set of elevators, nodding a smile in lieu of gretting to the receptionist, who was on the phone.

See that nice, big red comma I added? Now, as you read these two sentences, you may be thinking there is no real difference.

There is.

The first sentence has Rebecca nodding to the receptionist who was on the phone. That implies that there was potentially more than one receptionist, and that Rebecca only nodded to the one who was on the phone, ignoring the other receptionists who were not on the phone.

In the second sentence, the COMMA being place after receptionist sets that phrase off, clearly indicating there was one reception, who just happened to be on the phone.

That comma makes a difference in the meaning.

This happens frequently when people are identifying a person, and then detailing who that person is.

For example, one can assume that since people can only legally marry one person at a time, when you say, “She was talking to her husband, Ted,” that there is only one husband, and his name is Ted. But if she happened to have two husbands–let’s say one of them she thought was dead, but she found out later he wasn’t, and now she has two husbands in one scene–you would refer to is as, “She was talking to her husband Ted, before she turned to her husband Tom.”

This is just another quickie example of how comma placement can sometimes slightly alter the meaning of your sentence, and you might not even realize it!

Later, I’ll do another blog about commas, which will be slightly humorous, because it will talk about how comma placement, or lack thereof, can make some really strange word pictures.

Till then, keep writing!

Love and stuff,
Michy