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One bad habit I have when writing sentences is that I make them too long and have to use commas. Problem: I get confused on where to put them to maintain the smooth structured balance of the sentence. What I want the readers to see may change if the sentence is read differently.

Question:If commas, based on where I place them, can change a reader's point of view and understanding, how do I ensure they are not misinterpreted?

At times, I find myself having to read over a sentence -I'm too stubborn to change- to make sure its structured correctly and in a sense fits along a specific scene.

Just in case you don't get what I mean, here are some examples:

"He blinked unconsciously, leaning forward intrigued by what was going to happen, and following John's example he waited, the longer hand soon hit twelve."

See if the way I positioned the commas change how you read with the second version.

"He blinked, unconsciously leaning forward, intrigued by what was going to happen and following John's example he waited, the longer hand soon hit twelve."

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1) Break your habit of long sentences. They are mentally exhausting. Try reading your sentences out loud and see how often you have to stop to take a breath, or if you can remember the beginning of the sentence by the end.

2) You have a comma splice in your example.

He blinked unconsciously, leaning forward intrigued by what was going to happen, and following John's example he waited, the longer hand soon hit twelve.

The bold phrase is a complete sentence and has to be either connected with a semi-colon or removed to stand on its own.

3) Commas are not for decoration. They separate thoughts. They are meaningful. In your example, putting the comma before or after unconsciously changes which act is unconscious. Is the blinking unconscious or is the leaning forward unconscious?

4) "Leaning forward" has to be separated from "intrigued" no matter what else you do with the sentence.

Overall, I suggest you spend some time studying grammar. You may want to focus on the ancient art of diagramming sentences. This will teach you where the various marks of punctuation go and what they mean, and you won't be worrying about trying to prop up the broken structure of your sentences with a few helpless commas which aren't up to the task.

  • Mostly right, but I totally disagree with the idea that "leaning forward" must be separated from "intrigued". Many writers have got by with a minimum, even no, commas. In the first example, "leaning forward intrigued by what was going to happen" is a fine parenthetical expression. – Auspex Jun 6 at 13:41
  • @Auspex Of course some writers "get by" with no commas, but that isn't the point. If the sentence requires commas, either use commas or restructure the sentence. Leaning forward is one complete action. Intrigued by X is a second complete action. They have to be separated. Each action needs its own clause. Clauses are set off by punctuation. You are free to ignore those requirements if that's your writing style, but you cannot then expect to appeal to the mass of readers who are accustomed to the standard rules of composition. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 7 at 9:51
  • No, commas are about pacing. If you can structure a sentence such that its meaning is clear you don't need commas. They're always optional, though as the OP demonstrates they might help with understanding. Those authors who skip commas successfully are the ones I didn't notice doing it until somebody pointed it out to me. – Auspex Jun 10 at 9:23
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Comma placement is definitely crucial to the meaning of a sentence. In your case, I think sometimes the best choice is to simply break up your sentences into a few shorter ones. Watch out for run-ons and comma splices.

Side note: In your example sentence, "unconsciously" should be changed to "subconsciously".

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