NOTE: All these articles are based on British grammar and the techniques I used to help myself, they are by no means definitive.
Our final collection of instances with commas are between adjectives, repeated words, and when characters address other characters in dialogue.
Although dialogue doesn’t have to be grammatically correct, most people don’t speak grammatically, there are certain basic conventions when we write it down. One of these that is often forgotten is the use of commas when one character addresses another.
This might sound like a minor thing but it’s something that agents and readers expect writers to know and to do. I hasten to add that it doesn’t mean we can’t circumvent this if we make it part of the character, however, this is a rare occasion where the grammar of a sentence structure doesn’t actually impact the way we read the sentence. Whichever way we write a sentence where a character is addressed we will always say it the same way, when we speak a person’s name there is no noticeable indicator of commas so why do we do it? To be honest, I don’t know and I’m not sure anyone else does either.
There a three ways to lay out an address depending upon where the name/title is in the sentence:
‘Are you sure about this, Jesse?’
‘Jesse, you’re sure about this?’
‘Are you, Jesse, sure about this?’
Yes, I am. Although I, unfortunately, can’t explain to you why it is. I might theorise that it is possibly based on the use of commas for adding extra information (such as in my first comma article) and in this case the name is the extra information. You could easily say, ‘are you sure about this?’ while looking at me without using my name but I would still know you were talking to me. Using a name can be for many reasons such as politeness, trying to create a connection between people, or simply to clarify who we’re talking to.
Another instance where commas are something forgotten are where words are repeated for instance, ‘the red, red rose’. Once again this is purely a point of clarity and is arguably used because, if it wasn’t a poetic phrase, the second red would be redundant. I hasten to add that I’m not saying the phrase ‘the red, red rose’ is bad, it isn’t, I’m simply pointing out that when we speak directly rather than poetically we might not use the second red because red is red.
Finally the comma between adjectives is based on a similar principle to lists. When we use multiple adjectives we’re essentially making a list of adjectives to describe an object. In the case of adjectives it can also create clear distinction between descriptors that use multiple words. So we might have:
‘It was a deep, dark yellow.’
Both deep and dark are descriptors of the yellow telling us which shade it is. Once again we might say deep and dark are not both required because they both describe a similar state of the yellow but if we’re being poetic we can observe that it adds depth to the description. Alternatively we might have:
‘A tall, dark and handsome man.’
I know this is a cliché but it demonstrates the principle. Unlike the description of the yellow ‘tall, dark and handsome’ are describing three separate aspects of the man’s appearance. Being handsome doesn’t automatically make him tall and dark, nor does being tall automatically make him dark and handsome, and so on. Finally we could have:
‘Squeaky clean, citrus scented bathroom.’
In this case we’re not only showing two separate descriptors but we’re also showing that the bathroom is both ‘squeaky clean’ and ‘citrus scented’ therefore using two linked adjectives instead of one single adjective. Without commas it would read:
‘Squeaky clean citrus scented bathroom.’
Without the commas the meaning of the description becomes more ambiguous. We might have something that is:
‘Squeaky clean citrus, scented bathroom.’
‘Squeaky, clean citrus scented bathroom.’
‘Squeaky, clean, citrus, scented, bathroom.’
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point that the description changes depending on where we put our commas. Too many commas and it looks like we have four distinct descriptors that don’t actually make sense. No commas and it looks like one long descriptor that also doesn’t make sense but a comma between each distinct descriptor clearly marks which words belong together. To refer back to my bracket method:
‘(Squeaky clean) (citrus scented) bathroom.’
By using commas we make our actual intention clearer to the reader which makes our prose easier for them to read and enjoy.
For more writing advice see my Advice Page.
NOTE: Each article series comes in five parts published between Monday and Friday. Check back tomorrow for the next part.