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What My Overuse of Commas Reveals About Me

I've been reading the book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) and finding it fascinating. Lukeman is a literary agent and a writer, and this is his third book on writing. Although sometimes I found his first two books tough sledding, they were both filled with good advice, as is his latest. If you think that Strunk & White or Truss has said all there is to say about punctuation, you haven't read Lukeman.

As a writer myself, I'm reading the book in order to see what I can do to improve my work. And there's one paragraph I read that I thought might interest others as well.

In the chapter on the comma, Lukeman has a section titled "What Your Use of the Comma Reveals About You." I was particularly intrigued by this section because I tend to overuse commas in my first drafts. Or at least, that's what Nomi says when she edits my stories. She's often joked that I must have a "comma shaker," similar to a salt shaker, which I use to sprinkle commas liberally throughout my work. (If you've read my stories and are now scratching your head because you don't recall an overabundance of commas, remember that you've read my edited, final drafts, not my raw work. A writer is revealed much more in his first draft tendencies than in his published work. But I digress.)

Anyway, I took a careful look at the first paragraph, which describes, diagnoses, and analyzes the writer who overuses commas. For reference, here it is:

The writer who overuses commas tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs. He tends to be repetitive, won't be subtle, and often gives too much information. He grasps for multiple word choices instead of one strong choice, and thus the choices he makes won't be strong. His language won't be unique. Commas are also used to qualify, offset, or pause, and the writer who frequently resorts to this tends to be reluctant to take a definitive stance. He will be hesitant. His characters, too, might not take a stand; his plot might be ambiguous. It will be harder for him to deliver dramatic punches when need be, and indeed he is less likely to be dramatic. He is interested in fine distinctions, more so than pacing, and is likely to write an overly long book. He writes with critics in mind, with the fear of being criticized for omission, and is more likely to have a scholarly background (or at least be well read) and to consider too many angles. This writer will need to simplify, to take a stronger stance, and to understand that less is more. [Lukeman, pages 65-66]

Do I see myself in it? In some places. I don't overuse adjectives, but I do have to be careful to avoid adverbs. I'm not sure if I'm repetitive, but I do like to give lots of information and I am often more explicit than subtle. I'm not sure about some of the rest, but I will definitely admit that I write with critics in mind as much as I try not to. And yes, I do have a scholarly background (or at least I would call it such) and I consider myself well read. (I also think a hyphen belongs between the words "well" and "read," but perhaps I am in error.)

Even though I haven't finished the book yet, I recommend it quite highly. Lukeman ends each chapter with writing exercises that revolve around punctuation, and I've already found them useful. As for the rest of the book, I'm eager to see what he says about the semicolon, and then about my favorite punctuation mark of them all — the dash. My only criticism? He seems to have ignored the interrobang.

Copyright © Michael Burstein


You're absolutely right: "well-read" takes a hyphen.

Does Lukeman have anything to say about underuse of commas?
You're absolutely right: "well-read" takes a hyphen.

gnomi suggested that I might be wrong.

Does Lukeman have anything to say about underuse of commas?

Yes. :-)

(Seriously, though, it already took me a while this morning to transcribe the first paragraph, and I don't have time to quote the second at the moment. But in general, he says that the underuser of commas is either an unsophisticated writer who hasn't yet developed an ear for sentence rhythm, or the sophisticated writer who underuses them on purpose.)
I choose to claim that I am the latter. ;)
You're absolutely right: "well-read" takes a hyphen.

Depends on how it's being used — "The well-read writer is well read."

At least, that's how Garner has it:
G. Phrasal Adjectives Following the Noun. When they occur in the predicate, phrasal adjectives usually aren't hyphenated: "This rule is well worn"—but "This is a well-worn rule." An exception is short-lived, which is always hyphenated.

(Bryan A. Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, p. 496)
Yeah, this follows AP style, as I remember it (I last perused an AP style guide, oh, 10 years ago?).

Good to know I remember some useful things... ;)
I believe Chicago concurs. At least I hope it does, since that's the way I've been editing things.
In the quoted paragraph, third sentence, I think "this" s/b "thus".

And you've given me something to ponder.
Fixed. I was hoping to find the paragraph already quoted somewhere on the web, but I had to type it in myself.
I think he's dead-on in the hesitation diagnosis. I find myself hedging with all kinds of punctuation (em dashes--my favorite--and commas and semicolons, and parenthetical references) and I end up spinning around a loose and sluggish drain.

I think I'll be picking this book up. Tanks for the recommendation!
This feels about as dead-on as a horoscope: most people feel they overuse adjectives and adverbs, and he starts out by saying such a writer won't be subtle, and finishes by saying such a writer will be wishy-washy, which pretty much covers the gamut. But yeah, I do agree with his main argument, that people who use a lot of commas (myself included) tend to use a lot of dependent clauses, undermining the thrust of the independent clause.
I actually found that paragraph to be poorly written. I especially hate the second sentence. I hate the contractions, I hate the staccato style. I note with irony that he uses the oxford comma, parens, and a semicolon in that one little snippet. Some of those sentences I'd accuse of being run-ons, because it looks like he took staccato sentences and glued them together. It's like he wrote a bullet list, but someone told him "no bullet lists!!" and so he clumsily turned it into prose.

I'm supposed to take writing advice from *that*? Is the rest of the book like this?
Ouch. I tend to use lots of commas as well. Ouch.
George Flynn liked commas, and was always adding them to things. When I edit for grammar, I tend to think of comma use as a stylistic choice, so I only add or delete them where absolutely needed. I believe the serial comma is most people's downfall.

In college, I took a course that was about women's literature. The most interesting book was a small one about how women and men have different writing styles. In particular, women tend to use more em-dashes and parentheses, as if what they're saying is less important (i.e., more side clauses).
Interesting comment about em-dashes and parentheses. Personally, I think of the em-dash as a way to set off some text as more important, and not less important. It's actually one of my favorite pieces of punctuation. As for parentheses, I remember that my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Hodges, cited them as one of her pet peeves and asked us not to use them in our essays. She felt that anything important enough to write down was important enough not to be placed in parentheses.
My writing style is worse. When I write letters, memos, comments to journals etc, I start with parenthesis in my first drafts, "downgrade" them to commas in my second draft, and try to get rid of the clause entirely in my third.

And yes, it probably does indicate a willingness to explore multiple sides of an issue and respect other viewpoints (at least in my case).

See the paren? See it? See it?

[Smashes parenthesis with a large mallet]
Ironically, you smashed your parentheses within a pair of brackets.
um...yeah. But I have an excuse for that! See, the brackets held the parens steady, making them easier to hit with the mallet. Yup, uh hu, right, yeah, ok? :)

Actually I tend to use the < and > symbols to indicate "actions" that "I" am taking in online discourse. I think it's something I got from looking at muds in the 90's which did not tend to have the ability for italics, bold, or underline. However, lj uses html which uses those characters and I was too lazy to figure out how to "escape" them so they appeared correctly.

I'm not as lazy today. :)

Nomi recently used :: to tag "action text" as in:

::hands you a cookie::

Would you or Nomi happen to know where that syntax came from?
A number of gamers use colons where you use bra and ket (< and > ). I picked it up that way.

Asterisks are another way of marking the action, and it seems to be a common one amongst LJers, so I now find myself using the two interchangeably. Thus, I'll say *hands you a cookie* as often as I use ::hands you a cookie::, though I use :: for action for sure when I'm using * for emphasis.
I cannot get away with writing ", and" without squirming like I'm going to be hit over the hand with a ruler. So many authors do it, yet I personally don't want to be doing it myself, ever!
Actually, I find the ", and" vital if the comma is a serial comma. In Making Book, Teresa Nielsen Hayden gives the classic example of the dedication that needs a serial comma: "I'd like to dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

December 2016

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