Let's say, hypothetically, a story of mine was given an intense edit by an editor at a journal in which it will appear. Let's also say that this hypothetical story is some 27 pages long--approximately 9.7k words or so. So, as part of the intense edit, the editor made comments to the Word file, returned the file, and then I was to actually make the changes and email a corrected file back. Hypothetically. How many commas would you guess were added to those 27 pages?
If you guessed 150-some, you are correct.
Now I can't stress enough how appreciative I was of the editorial attention or how bad I felt for the (hypothetical) editor who had to insert 150 (hypothetical) commas, but it did get me thinking about the comma in prose, specifically if/when choice should trump the publication's style guide. Here are examples of the type of commas I omitted that were added:
- At home (COMMA) June baked cookies.
- He opened the door (COMMA) and the wind blew it back against the house.
- "Pick up some milk (COMMA) so I don't have to."
Now, it's not that I don't know that I comma should be after an introductory prepositional phrase or that there should be a comma before a conjunction with an independent clause behind it, but I really think there are times (apparently at least 150) when they're not necessary in literary fiction. Short prepositional phrases don't seem to even have a natural pause, sometimes the sentence needs to be rewritten so that the independent clause (and the comma) aren't necessary, and sometimes in dialogue commas seem out of character or insert an unnatural pause.
I rewrote some sentence, gladly made the changes on others, and resisted a few where I felt strongly about it. It's funny though, this is the only journal that has ever done anything like this, but I don't think it's because the others weren't doing it. I think they just did it without seeking the author's input at all. Since I never look at a piece once I check to make sure they didn't call me 'Petersen,' I really have no idea if this is the case or not, but I can imagine some poor graduate assistant pouring over my working with hundreds of commas on the table sprinkling them like pepper over my rough manuscript.
I feel intensely bad about this.
When I saw how many changes the hypothetical editor wanted to make, I wanted to email him back and call the whole thing off. If I don't have the grammar to get within at least 100 commas of correct, I probably have no business appearing in any journal. If this were a high school English class and each comma missed was minus a point, I would have gotten a negative 50, making it my worst grade since my 36 on a test in College Algebra. (Oh, and there was even partial credit points given on that algebra test.)
Now I'm on total comma lookout, having added several to this post I might have otherwise ignored. Had I known how much work commas were--and had time to run it by the ARC (Apocryphal Retort Club)--I might have just emailed back: Yeah, well, your mom needs 150-some commas.
That would have been sweet.