Comma overuse

edited December 2011 in - Writing Problems
Recently I've noticed a lot of writing that seems to overuse the comma. Here's an example from a story on the net:

"Most of the time, Leglum's interns manned the controls, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."

The first comma seems redundant, and I would have written the sentence as:

"Most of the time Leglum's interns manned the controls, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."

or as:

"Leglum's interns manned the controls most of the time, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."

Thoughts?

Comments

  • It's often over used.

    Some publishers will err on the side of non-use - I know MNs's does. She often sends me examples of what she's up against.

    It stems from our childhood educations. We're taught to use them to create a pause - but often the use of the correct word does that.
  • MonkeyNuts - she's an absent TBer.
  • Almost as bad - in a different way - as over-use of hyphens - isn't it?

    I mean, grammar - and punctuation - isn't what it used to be, eh? ;-)
  • The sentence above is correct, because the comma tells us there is a pause. But it now reflects the modern use of language which dictates the changes in how sentences are written. On the downside, lots of writers haven't got a grip with correct punctuation, but assume they're the dog's b******s at it, hence they don't find success at publication.

    If you want to impress an editor, pay attention to grammar.
  • And hook them with the opening paragraph or chapter - and tell a good story with the remainder.

    Two out of three ain't bad - but it still won't work.
  • Hmm. I don't know, DB. I think the comma is needed after 'time'. In the first of your alternative versions, the sentence reads: 'While L's interns were at the controls', giving a different meaning from the one intended and in fact making the reader stop when they reach 'but' and begin the sentence again.

    In a recent critique I had done, the (published) author and editor put commas in for me, and I have to say, it seems better with more rather than less. Perhaps we need to remember that we, the authors, know what we mean by what we write, and must convey that meaning 'clearly and simply' (the editor's favourite expression throughout the critique).
  • [quote= Dwight]Hmm. I don't know, DB. I think the comma is needed after 'time'. In the first of your alternative versions, the sentence reads: 'While L's interns were at the controls', giving a different meaning from the one intended and in fact making the reader stop when they reach 'but' and begin the sentence again.[/quote]

    Hmmm, I don't read it that way. To me it has the same meaning as the author's sentence, but without the pause.

    [quote= Dwight]In a recent critique I had done, the (published) author and editor put commas in for me, and I have to say, it seems better with more rather than less. Perhaps we need to remember that we, the authors, know what we mean by what we write, and must convey that meaning 'clearly and simply' (the editor's favourite expression throughout the critique).[/quote]

    That''s true, and it may be that extra commas were needed. However, in some modern writing I find the overuse of commas can make the writing stilted, and makes reading tiring. I suppose that if the grammar is correct then it's a matter of style and preference.
  • Good punctuation wouldn't draw attention to itself.
  • It's not an elegant sentence and it's difficult to look at it out of context and draw any conclusions about whether it's "right" or not. Commas are important in establishing the tone and rhythm of a piece of writing, and you can't get much of a sense of that from one sentence in isolation.

    [quote= DeneBebbo]"Most of the time, Leglum's interns manned the controls, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."[/quote]

    This is correct usage of the comma, as it separates the first half of the sentence into a main clause (the bit that establishes the interns man the controls) and a sub-clause (that they do it most of the time). You could take away the first part without actually losing the meaning of the sentence. The first of your alternatives doesn't make that distinction, meaning the first part of the sentence might feel a bit overloaded to some readers.

    [quote= DeneBebbo]"Leglum's interns manned the controls most of the time, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."[/quote]

    I don't think this is wrong, but somewhere between the two versions some clarity is lost. In the original version it was clear to me that Leglum is the subject of the sentence, whereas I think if I encountered the version above I might assume the interns were the subject, and might stumble over who "he" was. I'm not sure exactly why that might be; there's something about that "most of the time" that seems to point my interpretation of the sentence in that direction.

    Commas are important and need to be used with care - I'm probably misquoting terribly, but I think Oscar Wilde once claimed that he knew a manuscript was finished when he could spend all morning putting a single comma in and all afternoon taking it out again.
  • [quote=danfango]I don't think this is wrong, but somewhere between the two versions some clarity is lost. In the original version it was clear to me that Leglum is the subject of the sentence, whereas I think if I encountered the version above I might assume the interns were the subject, and might stumble over who "he" was. I'm not sure exactly why that might be; there's something about that "most of the time" that seems to point my interpretation of the sentence in that direction.[/quote]

    The more I have discussions about grammar on this forum the more depressed I get at apparently not being good at grammar :-( To me the context makes it clear that the "he" referred to is Leglum, even if it's not strictly correct grammatically - I don't know if it is or not!
  • Dene, not wishing to sound patronising, but the best thing you can do to really get to grips with grammar, is get hold of a good grammar book, such as Fowler's Modern English Usage, and study it well. If you can find an edition with exercises, even better. Alternatively read Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Truss. Entertaining and a good expos
  • [quote=Lolli]Dene, not wishing to sound patronising, but the best thing you can do to really get to grips with grammar, is get hold of a good grammar book, such as Fowler's Modern English Usage, and study it well.[/quote]

    I've got FMEU, but find it more suitable to dip into for specific clarifications than a book to read cover-to-cover. Also got a couple of books on grammar which I keep meaning to read, but always get distracted by a more interesting book! And I'm currently re-reading The Elements of Style, which is a useful book for any writer.
  • DeneBebbo, you're already published - you must be getting something right. I don't think you need agonise over this too much. The more you write the easier it will become - that goes for anyone.
  • [quote=danfango]In the original version it was clear to me that Leglum is the subject of the sentence, whereas I think if I encountered the version above I might assume the interns were the subject, and might stumble over who "he" was.[/quote]

    [quote= DeneBebbo]The more I have discussions about grammar on this forum the more depressed I get at apparently not being good at grammar To me the context makes it clear that the "he" referred to is Leglum, even if it's not strictly correct grammatically - I don't know if it is or not![/quote]

    It's nothing to get depressed about, and as BaggyBooks has said it's not worth agonising over. My comment was only really meant to flag up that it's good practice to introduce the subject of a sentence early on. By starting off with the interns, a typical reader (well, me) will tend to assume that's who the sentence is about, and only know for certain once they get halfway through.

    If it were my sentence, I'd edit

    "Most of the time, Leglum's interns manned the controls, but he relieved them every now and again when he felt drawn back to the lab."

    into:

    "Every now and again, Leglum felt drawn back to the lab, where he would relieve the interns manning the controls."

    (I'd argue you don't need both "most of the time" and "every now and again" in the same sentence).

    Another way to look at it is that the stimulus comes first (in this case, Leglum's urge to return to the lab) and is followed by the response (him going back there).
  • I also think we have unintended meanings arising in sentences because of the others uses of certain words.

    In this case:

    "Every now and again, Leglum felt drawn back to the lab, where he would relieve the interns manning the controls."

    I keep reading it as he's going back into the lab to help the interns go to the toilet...:)
    Sorry, my southern upbringing is showing.
  • Haha, yes - I thought that too, although I was trying to use the same words as the example sentence to try to avoid any further confusion.

    It's a minefield, innit?
  • edited January 2012
    It's partly a matter of style and personal taste. Some things contravene grammatical rules, others are a matter of opinion. I don't think it's worth getting too hung up on commas. Avoid either extreme (too many or too few) and you'll be OK. A good copy editor will sort you out when it's time for publication, either one employed by your publisher or by you yourself if you're going it alone.
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