Friday, August 14, 2009

Grammar: Here a comma, there a comma

A couple weeks ago I had to critique manuscript that was heavily salted with commas. It took me longer to read one page of that manuscript than it would take me to read half of Winnie the Pooh. Yes, I read Winnie the Pooh. Doesn't everyone. It reminded me of something transcribed from a William Shatner monologue.

"The needs, of the many, outweigh, the needs, of, the few, or the one." Puhleeze. There are times when commas are necessary and times when they are nothing more than William Shatner-isms and just as irritating.

Today, the subject is co-dependency in relation to sentences, and grammar, of course.

A dependent clause is a group of words with a subject and verb that do not express a complete thought.

When I lived in Panama dependent

When I lived in Panama, the jungle was about thirty feet from the house. complete sentence.

Notice the comma between the dependent clause and the rest of the sentence. The last part of the sentence could stand alone and that is an independent clause.

An independent clause is a subject, verb and object that can stand alone as a sentence.

The jungle was about thirty feet from the house. independent clause, complete sentence

A complex sentence is usually a mix of dependent and independent clauses. The dependent clauses will be marked in red and independent clauses will be marked in blue.

In view of the hardship imposed by higher taxes on citizens over seventy years of age, the government will impose a moratorium, however, not until the end of the current fiscal year.

If someone reaches the age of seventy after the proposed date, taxes will be deducted until the beginning of the new fiscal year.

It's really quite simple. If a clause can stand alone and is a complete thought, it is an independent clause. If it cannot, it is a dependent clause.

And if it is a dependent clause and is used as a complete sentence, it is either part of dialogue (people often speak in incomplete sentences and dependent clauses without the use of commas -- or taking a breath, which is the comma's original intended use) or the writer is either being stylish or trying to make a point.

The best way to figure out where a comma goes, especially in cases where independent and dependent clauses are concerned, is to read the sentences aloud. The ear is a good instrument for detecting comma placement -- unless you're William Shatner -- as are the lungs. If you have the lung capacity of a free diver, you're going to have problems with this method. The best thing to do is keep working at it and memorize the rules. Print them out and keep them close at hand when editing.

There are times when two independent clauses, or a combination of independent and dependent clauses require a semi-colon, but that is a subject for another day. Until next week, when we continue our comma coma, may all your grammar goofs be small ones.

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