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Conquering the Comma: A writer’s perspective

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Dr. Fred Tarpley, professor emeritis of English at Texas A&M University – Commerce and self proclaimed Book Doctor, has declared “War on Commas.”

His workshop, “Conquering the Comma,” held Monday, was part of the Silver Leos Writers Guild’s summer line up. Approximately 20 individuals attended the free event.

Dr. Tarpley divided the workshop into two sections: Causes of Our Comma Crisis and Fundamental Uses of Commas.

Causes of Our Comma Crisis delved into a few outstanding myths that plague comma users. Myth number one, the Pause Myth, was all but busted by Tarpley.

“Is it really a pause that is sometimes the clue to the need of a comma?” Tarpley asked. “Or is it something else?”

Tarpley presented the attendees with several sources of evidence for his “controversial” attack of the pause myth.

Dictionaries and literary stylebooks, such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, have no mention of the word “pause” in their comma appendix. Tarpley summed up the comma myth, borrowing a definition from “Hodge’s Harbrace Handbook” (16th ed.).

“Pauses are not a reliable guide for comma use because commas are often called for where speakers do not pause, and pauses can occur where no comma is necessary. A better guide is an understanding of some basic principles of comma usage.”

Following a brief break, Tarpley laid out what he believed to be the groundwork for conquering our comma epidemic.

Fundamental uses of the comma outlined in the workshop include: using a comma before one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, yet and so), when joining two independent clauses where the understood subject is “you,” placing a comma after an introductory element and introductory phrases of four or more words and to avoid misreading.

Tarpley concluded the workshop by focusing on two of the most difficult uses of the comma: setting off non-restrictive elements and nominative absolutes.

Commas should set off a non-restrictive element when it does not change the meaning of the sentence, Tarpley said.

Commas should set off nominative absolutes when they appear at the beginning, middle or end of a sentence.

Sets of practice sentences followed each fundamental. Tarpley also sent each attendee home with 100 practice questions as homework.

For a free two-hour workshop, Conquering the Comma offered sound practical advice in a friendly environment and homework to boot. The Silver Leos are accepting suggestions for other summer workshops, and from a writer’s perspective it would be foolish not to attend.




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