The Commas of Shannara

Terry Brooks, the author of the Shannara and The Magic Kingdom of Landover fantasy series, is a superb story teller. He also knows how to use commas to enhance both the aesthetic quality of his stories and reader understanding of his sometimes complex sentences.

I’m making my way through the entire Shannara series again. No, not all at once. I also squeezed in Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler and East, West by Salmon Rushdie. (Now, there’s a writer who likes long, but carefully crafted, sentences.)

While reading Isle Witch, part of the Shannara series, this morning, I came across this great sentence.

By midday, the cousins had forded the Silver River just west of where it disappeared into the deep forests of the Anar and were traveling north along the treeline.

Brooks correctly puts in a comma where many writers mistakenly leave one out, and he correctly leaves out a comma where many writers mistakenly put one in. Let’s look at each of these.

Comma correctly added

Brooks follows Zen Comma Rule G: Put a comma after introductory phrases and clauses. This rule specifically applies to introductory descriptions that modify the main verb in some way.

The phrase “By midday” tells when the main actions occurred. It is before the subject “cousins,” so it is introductory. As you can see, it is followed by a comma.

Some style guides state the comma is not needed if the introductory phrase or clause is short, such as fewer than 5 words–unless it contributes to clarity. This is both arbitrary and subjective. If we need the comma sometimes for clarity, let’s use it all the time for consistency. That comma is never wrong, so be consistent.

Comma correctly left out

Brooks also follows Zen Comma Rule AK: Don’t use a comma to separate two parts of a compound predicate.

The subject of the sentence (again) is “cousins.” This subject has two predicates, which we call a compound predicate. The first predicate is “had forded the Silver River just west of where it disappeared into the deep forests of the Anar.” The second predicate is “were traveling north along the treeline.”

The common mistake is to put a comma before the second predicate, especially when the first predicate is long. A comma in that place will separate the second predicate from the subject, which is also an error. With no comma before the second predicate, however, the second predicate is still linked to the subject.

You only need a comma before the second predicate when it is preceded by a parenthetical expression or some other sentence component that must be separated by commas. That isn’t the case here. Thus, the sentence doesn’t need a comma in that position.

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