|by UMBC Writing Center|
I decided to get serious about my writing during senior year of high school. Before then, I would brush it off as a last-minute chore for after dinner a couple days before the due date. Part of me getting serious included editing my drafts. I would end up with red ink all over my draft and myself, but I always found I was much more satisfied with my essay. However, during this newfound editing process I noticed something: I use a lot of commas. My teachers and professors noticed this as well: my English 100 professor put a one comma cap on each sentence which did not contain a quote or a list. I found this to be an extremely helpful requirement because it forced me to write clear and concise sentences, and I tried to follow this rule for the essays that followed. I learned a lot of little tricks to achieve this and I hope you will find them as useful as I do.
Conditional sentences are comprised of an if clause and a main clause. Some examples are:
If I study now, I’ll have free time later.
If it snowed last night, campus would have been closed.
If the interview goes well, I may get the job.
All of these follow the formula mentioned above. In the first sentence, the if clause is “if I study now” and the main clause is “I’ll have free time later”. These sentences all abide by the one comma limit, so what is the issue? The issue is when the sentence is much more complicated than these examples. Here is an example I pulled from the rough draft of the first essay I wrote for English 100:
A satisfied audience is an attentive audience, and what better way of getting people to think about an issue than to make them laugh about it? If people have a common ground with each other, like finding something humorous, they may be more open to discuss it.
I included the sentence before the underlined one for context. There are two issues with the underlined sentence. It breaks the one comma limit and it is redundant. Why tell the reader people may be open to discuss an issue when they find humor in it if the reader was already (rhetorically) asked a better way of having people think about an issue by laughing about it? That question alone proves the redundancy of that sentence. With that in mind, this was my revision for my final draft:
A satisfied audience is an attentive audience, and what better way of getting people to think about an issue than to make them laugh about it? If common ground is established, an audience may be more open to discussing the issue.
Those two issues have been taken care of, but let’s go a step further. We can make it even more concise by flipping the order of the if clause and the main clause, eliminating the need for a comma:
A satisfied audience is an attentive audience, and what better way of getting people to think about an issue than to make them laugh about it? An audience may be more open to discuss an issue if a common ground is established.
Perfect! We went from a redundant sentence with two commas to something much more straightforward. Too bad I didn’t think of that before I turned in my final draft.
I find conditional sentences the easiest to “clean up” because they usually make sense regardless the order of the if clause and the main clause.
Meaningless Phrases Introduce Unnecessary Commas
This is especially true when starting sentences. Here are some examples:
As a matter of fact, you have more debt than ever before.
For the most part, we don’t go to bed at four in the morning.
In both these sentences, commas have been introduced because they start with phrases which add little to nothing to the overall meaning. We can rewrite them as follows:
You have more debt than ever before.
We usually don’t go to bed at four in the morning.
In the case of sentence one, we can get rid of “as a matter of fact” and still keep its meaning. But for sentence two, we need to substitute “for the most part” with “usually”. Sentence two’s meaning changes from “sometimes we don’t go to bed at four in the morning” to “we don’t go to bed at four in the morning” if we don’t do that substitution. Even though we need that extra word, we’ve gotten rid of that comma. Here is another example from my final draft of that first essay:
Most of the time, the melody establishes tone, not the lyrics.
I can’t remember why I broke my own rule, but I’m sure you can see the revision:
The melody usually establishes tone, not the lyrics.
This one was simple enough. Get rid of the meaningless phrase “most of the time” and substitute “usually” to keep the sentence’s meaning, all while meeting the one comma limit. Let’s take a look at the second essay I wrote for English 100. This is a sentence I had in my final draft:
Facts cannot be refuted, and a person speaking from years of experience in a field will always trump someone without experience.
“Facts cannot be refuted” states the blatantly obvious. This meaningless phrase also introduced an avoidable comma. Here is what I should have had in my final draft:
A person speaking from years of experience in a field will always trump someone without experience.
Another easy revision which makes a world of difference in sentence flow. Finally, I want to go back to the first essay I wrote for that class:
As humans, it is far too easy for emotion to trump reason.
“As humans”? What else is going to be reading this essay?
It is far too easy to let our emotions trump reason.
That’s better. That meaningless phrase and its comma is out of sight. I wonder what my professor thought when he read that.
While I don’t think these are the easiest to correct, I believe they are the easiest to avoid. All it takes is some extra thought when you’re starting sentences.
This last tip is something that should be put off until you’ve written your entire draft. Don’t focus on making your rough draft perfect while writing it — it’s a rough draft. You’ll lose your mind trying to write perfect sentences while forming coherent thoughts for the first time. I feel getting right to real examples would be better than me making up artificial ones for this topic. Going back to the final draft of the first essay:
A song’s melody should match the tone it is trying to convey, otherwise it may be interpreted differently.
You should always look for ways to improve a sentence even if it’s fine on the surface. To start, let’s look for words that stand out. “Otherwise” is used to connect two clauses. Remember what else has two clauses? Conditional sentences! We can transform this into a conditional sentence:
If a song’s melody does not match the tone it is trying to convey, it may be interpreted differently.
All that’s left is to eliminate the comma by flipping the order of the if clause and the main clause:
A song may be interpreted differently if its melody does not match the tone it is trying to convey.
Great! We’ve removed the comma and made this sentence flow better. Let’s shift focus to the final essay I wrote for English 100. Here is a sentence from my final draft:
After all, to her, a lazy, carefree life is just a door away.
When I read this now, I feel like I’m driving over a really bumpy road. Three commas? But it was finals week when I wrote this so I’m going to cut myself some slack. Let’s get rid of “After all” because it is meaningless.
To her, a lazy, carefree life is just a door away.
It seems like we need another comma because of the list. But “lazy” and “carefree” used together in this context is redundant. Removing either adjective works, but I want to remove lazy because it’s “weaker”.
To her, a carefree life is just a door away.
We’ve met the one comma requirement, but is there anything else we can do? Flipping the “order” of this sentence to remove the comma makes it sound awkward:
A carefree life is just a door away to her.
There’s nothing else we can do with this sentence. However, it is still a gigantic improvement over our original. If you’re wondering about the “to her”, I need it for the previous sentences in my essay to make sense.
Let’s move onto the sentence directly after this one. I included the edited version for context. I replaced a couple words in the underlined sentence because the original wouldn’t make sense without seeing the rest of my essay.
To her, a carefree life is just a door away. To her, the benefits of this [potential] life will tower over the effort she is putting in to try [that] hotel door a couple times each day, so she remains hopeful.
The “to her” sticks out like a sore thumb in the underlined sentence, so let’s get rid of it:
To her, a carefree life is just a door away. The benefits of this [potential] life will tower over the effort she is putting in to try [that] hotel door a couple times each day, so she remains hopeful.
It might be a bit harder to see how we can get rid of the comma, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Notice something about that sentence: there is a reason why she remains hopeful. This sentence is the same thing as “[x] because [y]”, so we can re-shuffle it:
To her, a carefree life is just a door away. She remains hopeful because the benefits of this [potential] life will tower over the effort she is putting in to try [that] hotel door a couple times each day.
There isn’t anything else we can do, so let’s compare the revision to how those sentences originally were:
After all, to her, a lazy, carefree life is just a door away. To her, the benefits of this [potential] life will tower over the effort she is putting in to try [that] hotel door a couple times each day, so she remains hopeful.
The revision flows as smooth as butter compared to the choppiness of the original. Keep in mind this will not be possible for every sentence. And again, please do not do this while you’re writing your draft. This is the hardest part of revising, but it comes with the largest payoff.
Finding the sweet spot between commas and conciseness requires a lot of thought and sentence shuffling, but it is absolutely worth it when you’re finished. Please don’t take these tips as what is considered “right” for writing. Different things work for different people: I shared these in case you find they work for you.
Contributed by: Justin Sherman, Writing Center Tutor
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