Thursday, December 23, 2021

Commas, Part 9

In this, the ninth part of a twelve-part series on commas, we talk about the relationship between commas, quotation marks, and the quotations inside those quotation marks. But first, go back and review the previous eight sections, especially the first two—mastering Parts 1 and 2 will eliminate over 90% of your comma troubles right there. If you're here at Part 9, and you still can't tell me what a clause is, though... go back and read Parts 1 and 2. To master those parts, you really do need to be able to tell me, when I ask you, what a clause is, and what independent and dependent/subordinate clauses are. Seriously. This blog post will be here when you return. Go back and study up.

Back? Know what a clause is? Good. Put your answer in the comments, and while you're there, write (1) a compound sentence with two independent clauses in it, and (2) a compound-complex sentence with two independent clauses and a dependent clause in it. Show me you can apply the knowledge you've supposedly learned.

Now, to business. Look at these sentences:

"Just shit on the floor," she said absently.
"Just shit on the floor!" said Sean Connery.
"Just shit on the floor?" I asked timidly.

The above are some pretty obvious cases showing when to use, and not to use, commas. With quoted sentences that are supposed to end in periods, simply switch out the period for a comma before adding your he/she/it/they said. Don't do this with other types of punctuation, though. As you see above, with exclamations and questions, don't use a comma at all.

Now, look at these two sentences:

(1) "Come here, big boy. I just wanna slap those nasty tentacles."
(2) "Come here, big boy," she said, "I just wanna slap those nasty tentacles."

With the above, we see what happens with commas and quotations interrupted by she said. The first sentence contains a vocative comma (see Part 5). Note the comma after boy that replaces the period, and note the comma after said that is a lead-in to the following quote. As a matter of style, you could handle the situation this way as well:

(2a) "Come here, big boy," she said. "I just wanna slap those nasty tentacles."

The period breaks the flow between quotations, but that's a writerly decision, and I wouldn't call it a mistake. Sometimes, you have to make room for aesthetic license.

But back to sentence (2) again: that lead-in comma after said can be troublesome. Sometimes, it's good to have it, but sometimes, if you're really trying to give your prose some forward momentum, you might not need it. For example:

Next time Donald shits on the floor, just say "Thank you" and clean up once he's gone.

We could quibble over whether to capitalize the "thank you" (I think it's OK not to since you're tossing out a fragment and not really a complete sentence... unless you're the pedant who claims "thank you" is shorthand for "I thank you," but that's a can of worms for a whole different series of blog posts).

In the above sentence, a comma before "Thank you" would probably interrupt the flow of the thought, so I'd recommend avoiding using it. While, as you know, I normally hate talking about commas and how they can mark pauses, this is one case where you should take the pause notion seriously. Imagine if the above were written this way:

Next time Donald shits on the floor, just say, "Thank you" and clean up once he's gone.

See what I mean? The lead-in comma before "Thank you" seems interruptive. This might be a good time to agree with the Brits and their comma-hatred. Just skip the comma.

Look at this next one:

When asked how many elves he'd fucked in their sleep last night, Dwingle the dwarf lowered his gaze and, full of shame, whispered, "Fifteen. Couldn't help meself. They're all so bloody charming with those perfect teeth and sparkling assholes of theirs."

Note the comma before "Fifteen." That's a fairly classic lead-in comma situation.

And while it's somewhat off-topic, here's a rule you might vaguely remember being taught back in elementary school: if a quote runs on for several paragraphs, then you don't use a closing quotation mark until the final sentence of the whole quote, but you do put a quotation mark at the beginning of every paragraph of the quote. Does this sound vaguely familiar? The reason why is fairly commonsense: if you were to put a closing quotation mark at the end of every paragraph, it would seem as if several people were talking. I wonder, sometimes, how many people even notice this rule in action while they're reading, say, a novel. Look more closely next time. If a character's quote runs longer than a single paragraph, there won't be a closing quotation mark until the quote's end, but there will be a quotation mark at the beginning of every paragraph of the quote. Example (pay attention to the italicized part):

She sat her naked self upon my face, burying me in crotch hair. Her frighteningly large clitoris jabbed angrily like a maddened samurai at my nostrils and eyeballs as she ground her hips into my head. And then, in a deep, cavernous voice I never knew she possessed, she began to recite:

"Far have I traveled across tossing seas and dusty land and brooding wood to reach this holy place! Hard have I fought 'gainst armies cruel and fell! Furiously have I spilled blood as I made my dolorous way to this, my long-sought hallowed goal!

"Now, at last, sit I upon the very face of my vanquished foe! Forthwith shall I suck the soul from his body, the marrow from his bones, and only then shall I ascend Mount Scrotatus and throw down the mighty Cockangel, greatest of my foes!"

Vanquished foe? Soul? Marrow? That's when I realized this wasn't going to be the usual chow session at the Pussy Ranch.

So as you see above, a two-paragraph quotation has only three quotation marks. Note their relative positions for future reference, and avoid demonic women with large clits.

Back to commas. Note that, in American English, commas go inside quotation marks. If you put your commas outside the marks, then you're writing in UK English, and while that's not wrong in the UK, it's wrong in the US, so quit pretending to be someone you ain't. To wit:

"Come in," she said seductively, beckoning him into her chamber with her provocatively prehensile finger-nipples.

See? Comma on the inside.

I think that about covers the main rules for commas as relates to quotations. There are other rules, but they're rather abstruse, and the rules I've talked about will get you through most potential problems in your writing.

Add any and all commas needed. Some sentences might not require commas at all. With question (2), add any needed quotation marks. For answers, scroll down and highlight the invisible text between the brackets.

1. Ed stopped eating the baby long enough to utter a distracted "Finally" as I handed him the map of La Polla Erecta.

2. From the diary of explorer-anthropologist Malcolm Grandtrou, I read:

"Day Five among the Huh-huh tribe, whose language we are only beginning to comprehend. As far as I can determine, all verbal utterances are punctuated by different styles of flatulence, which the Huh-huh have developed into a sophisticated complex of anal phonemes ranging from subtle hisses and whistles to positively terrifying roars. Our team witnessed what appeared to be some sort of marriage ritual that involved a series of dance moves, tongue-flicks, screams, and colorful bursts of rectal cacophony.

Parsons, who was always a soft one, has already left the team in disgust. A guide from the tribe is presumably leading him on the ten-day trek back to Quola Village, where there's an airstrip and perhaps a bit of a cell-phone signal. I hope Parsons isn't being boiled alive somewhere. The rest of us, meanwhile, are captivated by what we've seen and learned thus far, and some of us are even eager to begin practicing the Huh-huh language, although we realize the effort will undoubtedly produce misunderstandings as we clumsily master this windy tongue.

3. "I don't know what you're talking about" said Steinberg, but the dog's paw jutting baldly out of his bowl of soup told me everything I needed to know.

4. "Look at me like that again" said Vasquez "and I'll happily wear your scrote as a bandanna."

5. "Don't move! It'll kill us all!" shouted Mark as his massive erection broke free of his pants.

6. "Daddy, why did the president sniff me?" my daughter asked after we got home.

ANSWERS (highlight)

[1. no comma needed

2. comma before "Parsons," beginning of 2nd paragraph; comma at end of 2nd paragraph

3. comma after "about"

4. comma after "again"; comma after "Vasquez"

5. no extra comma needed

6. no extra comma needed]

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