Author Topic: My usual confusion with commas.....  (Read 1733 times)

Short-Cross

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My usual confusion with commas.....
« on: April 03, 2020, 08:49:48 AM »
Apologies for all the inane questions about punctuation...

I can't decide if I need a comma in this sentence after 'evening':


"I’d watched a whole pack of them climb out of their car on the waste ground earlier this evening, while Benson had stood in the pitched beams of our headlights."


I know that you generally need one before 'which' and not 'that', but am not sure about 'while'...

Thanks in advance!

Shorty.

Jo Bannister

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #1 on: April 03, 2020, 10:29:25 AM »
I wouldn't put one there.  I can't quote you chapter and verse, but it seems to me that it's one statement - I did this while he did that.

There are two tests I apply to all these situations.  Try reducing the essence of the sentence to its simplest components and see if you still feel the need for punctuation.  That works for the sample you quote.  Of course, it won't work if your original sentence is too convoluted to make sense without punctuation.

The other thing to try is reading it out loud and noting where, and if, you take a breath.  If you don't need a breath, you probably don't need punctuation either.

My first newspaper editor always held that punctuation is a necessary evil: the less of it you use the better, if you're still making your meaning clear.  Modern thought seems to have moved away from that, which I think is a pity.  The aim of all punctuation - and no punctuation - is to make the writer's intentions clear.  That's it.  It's not a chance to show off, a way of demonstrating your expensive education or a snob-fest, it's just a tool.  Use it appropriately, then put it away.


Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #2 on: April 03, 2020, 01:23:21 PM »
That's great advice, thanks Jo. I'm getting rid of it :)

Mark Hoffmann

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #3 on: April 03, 2020, 03:55:27 PM »
I'm not a grammar person but I know what I like and I assume I've also picked some stuff up through osmosis while reading thousands of books.  :) Or maybe not.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the sentence without the comma. But I did note the use of this (rather than that) evening.  Does that mean the main narrative is in the present tense? If so, do you need the hads?

These are the 2 options I'd consider.

I watched bah blah earlier this evening.
I'd watched bah blah earlier that evening.

Another suggestion (again that you didn't ask for) is that you could move Earlier this/that evening to the start of the sentence so it does not get in the way of the description.

Earlier that evening I'd watched a ...
Earlier this evening I watched a ...

M
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Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #4 on: April 03, 2020, 05:08:33 PM »
Good spot, Mark. It does need moving to the front of the sentence :)

The tense is all over the place at the moment (for this scene anyway). It's written in present tense, but the MC is remembering something that happened earlier (in past perfect) which then morphs into simple past tense in an attempt to get rid of all the 'hads' and to move it more towards flashback, but then while remembering what happened, the MC remembers something that he remembered at the time, and that's written in present tense.

I'd imagine it needs fixing, although I might post it before I do, just to show how mixed up tenses can get if you're not careful!

« Last Edit: April 03, 2020, 05:17:35 PM by Short-Cross »

Jo Bannister

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #5 on: April 03, 2020, 09:08:13 PM »
Just for the record, writing fiction in the present tense is opening a can of worms that most writers are ill equipped to deal with.  There's a reason that most fiction is and always has been written in the past tense: it's because it works.  And it doesn't present all the difficulties that you're becoming aware of.

Gyppo

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #6 on: April 03, 2020, 10:16:36 PM »
Don't complicate your task any more than it needs to be.

When my youngest was learning to be an English teacher she was taught there were eleven tenses, and took great delight in rolling off the entire list.

I told her I only ever consciously used three, past, present, and future.

It's the difference between having a well-worn and understood toolkit you can carry easily, or a cupboard full of 'only once in a lifetime' tools.

With the well-worn ones you instinctively know which one fits where and won't start double-guessing yourself.

Gyppo

Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #7 on: April 04, 2020, 07:37:40 AM »
Thanks for the advice! I think I'll stick with present tense though, it's easy enough when written in first person and produces the immediacy that past tense often lacks. It's only really memories and flashbacks that create problems, but then (for a flashback) if you were writing in past tense, you would still need to switch from past perfect back to simple anyway, which is almost always a bit clunky. Unless you're happy with loads of hads.

This is the flashback intro that goes from present -> past perfect -> past simple.


‘Hooded killers, the lot of them,’ he says. ‘No fuckin’ respect.’

Hooded killers. He’s got that right. Earlier this evening, a whole pack of them had climbed out of their car while Benson had stood in the pitched beams of our headlights. They’d spread out into the surrounding darkness like wolves circling a campfire. Eventually, one of them walked over to the Mini and leaned in through the driver’s door.
« Last Edit: April 04, 2020, 08:07:22 AM by Short-Cross »

Jo Bannister

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #8 on: April 04, 2020, 10:08:23 AM »
You can lead a horse to water...

Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #9 on: April 04, 2020, 10:39:14 AM »
If a thirsty horse refuses to drink, then more fool the horse I say. However, you have to consider the possibility that it wasn't thirsty in the first place.
« Last Edit: April 04, 2020, 11:03:27 AM by Short-Cross »

Mark Hoffmann

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #10 on: April 04, 2020, 12:52:59 PM »

This is the flashback intro that goes from present -> past perfect -> past simple.


Why do you need past perfect in that example sentence?  :)
Writing humour is the hardest thing since sliced bread.

The Severed Hands of Oliver Olivovich
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Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #11 on: April 04, 2020, 02:49:31 PM »

This is the flashback intro that goes from present -> past perfect -> past simple.

Why do you need past perfect in that example sentence?  :)

Because of 'Earlier this evening' happening before 'Eventually, one of them walked over'. (I think).

Mark Hoffmann

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #12 on: April 04, 2020, 04:19:23 PM »
It's academic and doesn't really matter I suspect, but it's quite interesting - to me anyway.

To my ear (not expertise) the second had (had stood) in particular grates. The subsequent ones also but to a lesser degree. The first had (had climbed) seems OK. Yet I'm not convinced even that is needed to aid clarity.
Writing humour is the hardest thing since sliced bread.

The Severed Hands of Oliver Olivovich
UK - https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087SLGLSL
US - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087ZN6L6V

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Short-Cross

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Re: My usual confusion with commas.....
« Reply #13 on: April 04, 2020, 06:12:35 PM »
Thanks Mark. You're completely right - it grated on me too (I'd already deleted it in my word doc, so I'm glad it annoyed you as well!) :)

A friend bought me a pass to those online masterclasses recently (well - my boss, but also a friend. If you haven't paid to see them, I wouldn't waste your money) - although there were one or two interesting snippets. It was Dan Brown who suggested morphing into simple past via one or two lines of past perfect when introducing a flashback. His example was:

He thought of his time at the academy thirteen years earlier. He had been an A-Grade student, top of the class, when his English teacher had kept him behind one day. It was late May and he didn’t want to stay behind, he wanted to go to the beach with Sylvie.