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Use Your Comma Sense Tags: punctuation spliced commas English grammar demise of punctuation

A belated Happy New Year to everyone at Writers Abroad! One of my New Year's resolutions is to brush up on my punctuation. A lot of writers (including me) have an ambivalent relationship with those pesky but oh-so- important marks.

When I’m teaching English and a student asks me to explain the use of commas, a sense of dread grips me. That deceptively simple-looking little mark has so many uses and misuses. In the spirit of facing my fears I will attempt to explain the use, or rather misuse, of the spliced comma. Other comma misuses are available, but I won’t be examining those. Now take a look at this sentence;

Dan locked himself in the bathroom, Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone.

This ‘sentence’ actually comprises two main clauses. As a general rule, two main clauses cannot be joined by a comma. This is why it is called a spliced comma, because it mistakenly tries to splice two sentences into one. The sentence above is thus incorrect.

Our toolkit to fix the problem

Add a full stop (US period).

Easy peasy!

Dan locked himself in the bathroom. Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone.

Add a semicolon.

Because the two sentences are closely related, we can use a semicolon to join them together.

Dan locked himself in the bathroom; Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone.

Insert a coordinating conjunction and a comma.

Useful acronym to remember CCs is FANBOYS; For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So.

Dan locked himself in the bathroom, and Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone.

Turn one of your main clauses into a subordinate clause.

Subordinate clauses are preceded by subordinating conjunctions such as since, because, while and although.

If you start with the subordinate clause you will need a comma.

Because Dan locked himself in the bathroom, Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone.


Start with the main clause and you can leave your comma out.

Tamara realised she’d have to face the burglars alone because Dan locked himself in the bathroom.

So now your shiny toolkit is opened and ready to go, there are some spliced commas that need fixing on this page. 

Perhaps you, like author Cormac McCarthy, eschew all those pesky marks and think that any punctuation apart from full stops looks messy on a page? I look forward to hearing about your experiences with the spliced comma, or indeed any other amusing, incorrectly-punctuated sentences.

Get Your Frights on Winter Nights Tags: The Haunting of Hill House Netflix Stephen King Shirley Jackson Horror Genre

The last few weeks I’ve been hooked on Netflix series, ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ directed by Mike Flanagan. The series is loosely based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Horror writer, Stephen King, describes the series as, ‘close to genius'.

Memories or Ghosts?

The story is told through two timelines; switching between one summer the Crain family spent at Hill House when the children were growing up, and their lives as adults in the present. The story is told over ten episodes in a non-linear way and we get to know what led up to a night in Hill House that changed the family’s lives forever. We also learn why the truly terrifying Bent Neck Lady haunted Nell Crain when she was a kid and still haunts her in adulthood long after leaving Hill House. THoHH plays with that numinous area between emotional vulnerabilities and supernatural possession suggesting that we are all, like the Crain family, ‘haunted’ in some way; perhaps by family trauma, relationships that went wrong or desires that never came to fruition.

Inspired by Poe

When I was at secondary school, we had to write a story in response to Edgar Allen Poe’s tale, 'The Black Cat'. I wrote about a girl walking in a wood at night who witnessed a murder through the lighted window of a log cabin. She didn’t see the actual figures but events unfolded in silhouette on the cabin wall. I was really proud to be asked to read it to the class. My first published short story had ghosts and witchcraft, but since then I have generally stayed away from the horror genre because of its reputation as trashy entertainment, and the fact that it’s so easy to get it wrong and end up with something farcical.

Can we learn from the horror genre?

My opinons on horror changed however, when I went to a workshop at a writers’ conference a few years ago. The tutor explained how fiction writers, regardless of genre, can learn so much from the horror story. All stories need powerful antagonists, and horror stories have to deliver on that score. Readers must care deeply about the main character and at the climax of the action you know that your MC will be isolated and face-to-face with the antagonist.

Jekyll and Hyde

In many horror stories, protagonist and antagonist even merge into one, so that hitherto ‘good’ characters step over to the dark side. Indeed, the characters’ struggles with light and dark forces are major plot points in THoHH. This merging with dark forces also happens in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining. King famously hated Stanley Kubrick’s film of his book. In the novel, protagonist, Jack Torrance, tries his utmost to resist the evil forces in the haunted Overlook Hotel, retaining traces of his humanity almost until the end of the story. In the film, lapsed alcoholic, Jack, quickly sides with malevolent spirits and carries out their evil bidding without resistance.

Why do we need ghost stories?

Kubrick said that, ‘The Shining,’ is a positive movie because any evidence of life after death offers reassurance to mortals.

Ghost-story doyenne, Susan Hill, theorises that we all enjoy thrills in a safe environment and in doing so prepare ourselves for the real frights and dangers in life. And Stephen King suggests that it’s much more diverting to be scared of ghosts than it is to worry about the true horrors of life such as serious illness, loss of loved ones and the grim reaper.

What about you? Do you like ghost/supernatural horror stories? Which ones are your favourites? Maybe you are a rationalist who has no truck with ghosts, real or fictional?

Drive for diversity, or censorship under another name? Tags: Sensitivity reader diversity in publishing Lionel Shriver Anders Carlson-Wee The Guardian The Nation

Sensitivity reader is a job that I heard of earlier this year after reading this article in The Guardian. A sensitivity reader is someone who reads through novels and checks whether a character has been represented in an offensive/stereotypical/inauthentic way on grounds of their ethnicity, gender, disability or sexual orientation. If the manuscript contains potentially offensive material then the sensitivity reader gives suggestions on how this can be put right by the author. 

I am sure that I have made gaffs in the representation of another person’s experience in fiction, and could benefit from hearing how to make a voice more authentic, but I can’t help feeling that something more insidious is lurking in the background. Could sensitivity reading be just another name for censorship?

Out with the Old
Earlier this year, a teachers’ union chief suggested that schools should look beyond “dead, white men,” i.e. the likes of Shakespeare, Dryden and Shelley in order to make the curriculum more diverse. Jenny Agutter, who is patron of the Shakespeare in Schools Foundation, pointed out that we need to maintain our literary sources in order to provide a reference point in the past and that getting rid of Shakespeare would be like tearing down historical buildings and attempting to build civilisation from scratch. Most pertinently she expressed the view that exceptional writing remains relevant regardless of when it was written and by whom.


Stealing Another’s Voice
The poem, How-to about a black, homeless man was recently published in The Nation, the longest-running weekly magazine in the States. The author of the poem, Anders Carlson-Wee, faced such fierce criticism after his poem appeared in the magazine that he and the editors later apologised for writing and publishing such an ill-judged piece (in retrospect) which appropriated the black vernacular and disparaged disabled people and People of Colour.


Big Names Make Blunders too
Author, Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk about Kevin) was ousted off a panel of Mslexia judges for her article about how authors would be selected by publishers in the coming years. She wrote in the The Spectator that less-talented writers would be given priority over others purely because of the publishing industry’s need to redress the balance in terms of diversity amongst the writers they represent. She suggested that this drive for heterogeneity in reality will mean allowing an algorithm to select future authors. She didn’t say it as tactfully as I am trying to do here! Given her success as a writer, I imagine Shriver can pretty much write what she likes and still hit the bestseller list. And I don’t suppose missing the Mslexia gig was a big deal for her. Read her Spectator article here.

What are your feelings on writing from another’s POV very removed from your own? Perhaps you stick to the old adage, write what you know? Would you consider working with a sensitivity reader if you do step outside those boundaries? How diverse are your reading habits? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue.



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The House at Zaronza
tagged: writers, abroad, vanessa, couchman, historical, and fiction
Love is All You Need: Ten tales of love from The Sophie King Prize
tagged: writers, abroad, sophie, king, prize, alyson, and hillbourne
Out of Control
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, croft, members, and publications
The Duke's Shadow
tagged: the, duke-s, shadow, louise, charles, debut, and novel
Foreign & Far Away
tagged: writers, abroad, amanda, hodkinson, books, charity, anthology, 2013...
Losing Control
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
tagged: nina, croft, writes, and abroad
Conversations with S. Teri O'Type
tagged: writers, abroad, christopher, and allen
Break Out
tagged: writers, abroad, ninca, and croft
Deadly Pursuit
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
The Calling
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
Big Book of New Short Horror
tagged: featuring, wa, member, alyson, and hillbourne
Tiger of Talmare
tagged: writers, abroad, nina, and croft
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