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My wife is writing a book, and just got a draft back from an editor.

The editor noted extra commas in numerous sentences like this:

He looked at her closely, but all she said was, "I am truly glad we will be living in a nice, safe fort, and not one of these wild frontier towns."

The extra comma in question is after fort.

The argument was that the comma was not needed because it was separating dependent clauses. My wife put the comma there to create a verbal pause.

There were other places for which similar commas were not within character quotes (a character wasn't speaking). This may be a different animal:

Dani had begged for a day to rest some, and to catch up on the numerous small duties she'd not been able to see to during the past week.

She's gone through all of the grammar and style guides she has access to, and hasn't found whether it's permissible or not. I'd guess at least that it should be done consistently one way or the other, but don't know which way.

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It goes against the mechanical rules talk in American composition classes, but you can trivially find many examples in the better literature of just exactly what your wife is doing there. I’ve had arguments with copyeditors about this myself. I don’t have a style guide reference I can cite for an answer, but you can find many examples of it. –  tchrist Dec 3 '12 at 3:41
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Maybe your wife should use an ellipsis instead of a comma to create a pause. That's kinda trendy with writers these days: "I am truly glad we will be living in a nice, safe fort ... and not one of these wild frontier towns." A question, though. Why no contractions? Wouldn't "I'm truly glad we'll be living in a nice, safe fort ... and not one of these wild frontier towns." The speaker must be a bluenosed old biddy with a ramrod up her rectum to talk without contractions. –  user21497 Dec 3 '12 at 4:20
    
@BillFranke- or a NY mobster :-) –  Jim Dec 3 '12 at 4:59
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@Jim: Yeah, but dem NY mobstahs, dey say tings diffently: "I am truly glad wese will be livin' in a nice, safe fought an' not one of dese wyuld fronteah towns, do youse know whut I mean?" –  user21497 Dec 3 '12 at 7:23
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3 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

It looks to me like you've already answered your own question. "It should be done consistently." Follow one consistent pattern within the narrative. If you (by which I mean your wife) want(s) to insert extra commas in the dialog to show pauses, that's your prerogative, but make sure that there's actually a reason for the pause caused by each additional comma. If it doesn't give any additional meaning, remove it.

The prescriptivistic and potentially outdated grammar of Elements of Style lists a rule (in Chapter 1, part 4) for placing a comma "before a conjunction introducing a co-ordinate clause" (unless the conjunction is and or but and both clauses have the same subject). That could work as a reasonable ground rule for where to insert commas in the narrative, but it can be customized as you see fit. It's a novel, not a piece of academic writing, so it's up to you to decide on your own rules for when commas are needed.

There are plenty of acclaimed modern authors who use almost no commas at all. The general modern approach to commas is the fewer the better. If you can't think of a specific reason why a sentence needs to have a comma, it's better to leave it off.

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I agree that commas are allowed as shown the first example, but suggest that the commas after nice and fort are undesirable. Also, I think it is undesirable to have a comma after after nice if there is none after fort.

In the second example, again the comma seems allowable but undesirable. The main problems I see with that sentence are the clumsy phrases rest some and not been able to see to. I'd rewrite as shown below (where italics mark added words). Your wife might find it useful to post a few passages for comment at writers.stackexchange.

Dani had begged for a day to rest some, and to catch up on the with numerous small duties she'd not been able to see to foregone during the past week.

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I believe those clumsy phrases are called "style" and convey some meaning about the character. –  Fortiter Dec 3 '12 at 6:28
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Style. Yes. Every character has to have its own consistent voice & style. Sounds a little like "West Virginia, Mountain Momma, Take me home, country roads". And it's narration, & maybe the narrator's a character in the novel, which would make the narration dialogue. The character has a voice and style different from those of the narrator, who uses a contraction: "she'd". There's no way I'd mess with it. In fact, I wouldn't touch somebody else's novel at all except to read it. Give me a science paper any old day: There's very little to argue about. –  user21497 Dec 3 '12 at 7:18
    
@Fortiter & Bill, the 2nd example is narrative rather than dialogue: the question plainly says “a character wasn't speaking” the sentence. –  jwpat7 Dec 3 '12 at 7:24
    
@jwpat: You're right. It does say that, & I forgot about that when I wrote my comment above. I'm thinking of Absalom, Absalom!, in which all the narration is by the characters, & To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout, the protagonist. But when she's narrating, Scout's removed from the action & seems more a narrator than a character because she's much older than her character in the actual story. Be that as it may, I think I'll leave the editing to John's wife's editor, who's read the book from the beginning. –  user21497 Dec 3 '12 at 8:55
    
And where in the "writer's rule book" does it say that an author cannot convey a sense of character through the narrative language in addition to dialogue. I stand by my comment that the suggested edits are a gratuitous intrusion. –  Fortiter Dec 3 '12 at 10:24
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I have found R L Trask to be generally reliable on commas, as on all punctuation. He identifies four types of comma: listing, joining, gapping and bracketing. The case illustrated by the example seems not to fall neatly into any of these categories, so I would conclude that a comma after fort is at most optional.

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