Now back to regularly scheduled programming
You might think your manuscript's fascinating story potential should rise above any typos and poor grammar, but the truth is agents and publishers receive an onslaught of submissions. They give most of these submissions a few seconds before deciding whether to pass on it or keep reading. That means any red flags can prompt a rejection.
Poor grammar can be a red flag!
I say "can" because there will always be the exception to the rule. Counting on being the exception to the rule is NOT a good idea. You need to clean up your submission.
Don't let errors ruin your submission's chances!
If you've missed the first two posts in this series, never fear!
Part 1: an overview of the top 11 grammar rules to follow
Part 2: a look at compound sentences and punctuation
Today, we're going to explore commas used with dependent clauses.
Here are the rules (#'s 2, 3,& 4 from Part 1) we want to break down:
- Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence's meaning.
- Do not use commas to bracket phrases that are essential to a sentence's meaning.
- When beginning a sentence with an introductory phrase or an introductory (dependent) clause, include a comma
As I did last week, let's take a moment to define the terms.
- Dependent Clause: a phrase that does not make a complete sentence by itself
- Nonrestrictive phrase: dependent clause that contributes to the context of the sentence but is not essential to the sentence's meaning
- Introductory phrase: dependent clause that appears at the beginning of the sentence prior to the subject
The opening paragraph of "Prayers for Bethany" in Pieces of Her provides a couple of examples of rule #2.
The minutes ticked by in agonizing eons, drop by drop in time with the saving liquid in the IV bag hung by Bethany’s bed in the ICU. Jane, her mother, stared at the fluid wondering how it helped, if it helped, her daughter. The young girl lay on the bed, still and quiet as death, her skin paler than the white sheets hiding most of her injuries.
In the second and third sentences, we have nonrestrictive phrases:
Jane, her mother, stared at the fluid wondering how it helped, if it helped, her daughter.
The young girl lay on the bed, still and quiet as death, her skin paler
than the white sheets hiding most of her injuries.
The phrase "her mother" redefines Jane and can be dropped from the sentence without disrupting the meaning of the sentence:
Jane stared at the fluid wondering how it helped, if it helped, her daughter.
As you can see, the sentence still works without "her mother" redefining who Jane is. That means it's a nonrestrictive phrase, so it must be set off with commas.
The phrase "still and quiet as death" doesn't redefine the young girl, but it does describe her. This phrase, also, can be dropped without changing the sentence's meaning:
The young girl lay on the bed, her skin paler than the white sheets hiding most of her injuries.
This sentence works well without the nonrestrictive phrase, also. Any time you have a short phrase that provides further description or identification of a noun and isn't essential to the sentence's meaning, it's a nonrestrictive phrase and needs to be set off by commas.
Now let's look at an error that often happens when writers attempt to set off a nonrestrictive phrase that is essential to the sentence's meaning.
The man who has many ties has too few necks.
Since the phrase "who has many ties" provides a description of the man, a writer might decide it's nonrestrictive and set the phrase off with commas like this:
The man, who has many ties, has too few necks.
Try reading that sentence WITHOUT the phrase set off by commas: The man has too few necks! That does NOT work as a sentence. We need the phrase, so it's not a nonrestrictive phrase. You would not need commas in this sentence.
The last rule for today looks at introductory phrases. These phrases are often used to connect the sentence to the previous sentence or paragraph. Used well, they create flow in your writing, but do not overuse them. All writing needs variation in sentence construction.
Here's another example from "Prayers for Bethany."
While he ordered her coffee, Jane studied the man.
The introductory phrase is "while he ordered her coffee." This phrase introduces the sentence, but does not work as a sentence by itself. The subject of this sentence is "Jane" not "he."
Whenever you use an introductory phrase, you will want to put a comma after the phrase separating it from the main subject of the sentence. Not sure whether you need the comma? In many cases, you can put the phrase at the END of the sentence instead. Then, you won't need a comma.
Jane studied the man while he ordered her coffee,
Now, you do not need the comma because the phrase does not come before the subject of the sentence.
If you can master these three rules as well as the rule covered last week, you will be well on your way to understanding when to use a comma.
Do you have any questions you want answered? Let me know in the comments, and I'll try to add it to this series.
Next week, we'll look at rule #5, working with possessive nouns...and no, I don't mean demon-posssessed!