I wanted to address this question. Multiple people have asked me, “What is your biggest pet peeve when you edit _____?” The “___” refers to whatever I was talking about at the time: academic papers, manuscripts, freelance work, my own work, etc.
I usually don’t know what to answer, but I’m going to try my best now.
Everyone who knows me heard stories about the people I worked with at my college press. One author in particular gave me a lot of grief. I called him “hyphen guy,” because he loved to use hyphens in his text. And he’d put them in such awkward places: stop-light, inter-state, etc. As you can imagine, it got to be quite annoying.
Even hearing me talk about it now, two years later, you can’t miss the exasperation in my voice. You’d think that hyphens are my biggest pet peeve.
I don’t think that’s true. My biggest pet editing peeve is actually…commas.
Notice I didn’t say people who use too many commas or “comma guys.” My problem isn’t with people who use commas. (Unless I find someone who doesn’t believe in the Oxford comma. Then I’m ready for a showdown.) It’s with commas themselves. I’ve thoroughly convinced myself over the last few years that commas are the most confusing part of this utterly confusing language.
If you’re still a student, I’m about the blow your mind. Those rules your English teachers are trying to cram down your throats…they really don’t matter!
Well, okay, I’ll back up for a second. They do “matter.” You have to know how to write in proper English. For instance, items in a list have to set apart with commas. Introductory phrases and clauses also have to be set off by commas. Commas are used with dialogue and strings of adjectives. And, of course, the rule of thumb is that a comma should be inserted wherever you hear a pause when you read a sentence out loud.
Ah, the age-old rules of comma usage. I remember them well. These are actually a paraphrase of the rules in one of my grammar books. But if someone tells you that these these rules are set in stone, they are sadly mistaken. In fact…
If you really want to rattle some cages, look your professor in the eye the next time he says, “There shouldn’t be a comma there. There isn’t a pause.”
Look him in the eye and say, “There is a pause.” Then watch the look on his face while you overly pronounce the pause where you placed your comma. It’s either going to be comical or frightening.
If you can’t take that, I would strongly suggest you stay out of a career that requires you to pour over manuscripts, or documents, for that matter, with a red pen.
In the real world, you’ll hear things like: “Oh, I’m sorry, but we follow an editing standard that doesn’t recognize the Oxford Comma” or “If the author wants those commas there, then you should drop it. It’s just her writing style.”
I’ve heard both of these statements. They made me feel sad…and mad…Yes, I’m smad. It’s a real emotion. It’ll catch on. 🙂
The hard part is, I have problems with commas, too. I could say a sentence five different ways, with five different commas. Does that mean they’re all correct? No…wait, yes…maybe? It’ll probably depend on who is “grading” writing and if they care about the intent behind it.
I can pretty much guarantee you that someone out there is going to have a problem with one of the commas in this article. So go ahead, let me have it! Just remember that the comma is the one who actually deserves your scowl and disrespect.
That’s right. I don’t respect you, comma!
*Jumps under desk and curls into a ball* Please don’t tell any of my commas that I said that. I don’t want to get ambushed by commas in the next manuscript I read.
🙂 So…whatcha’ thinkin’ guys?