Where the Heck Do I Put This Comma?

The punctuation mark comma

Comma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’ve been harping on about grammar and punctuation a lot lately, but I am of the school of thought that if you are from an English-speaking country, you should have a firm grasp of the English language and usage. It is a sad commentary on society that many foreigners go to great pains to learn English, and accents or no, they grasp the ins and outs of our language better than a great number of us. Granted, English (being the mess that it is) is one of the most difficult languages to learn, but that’s no excuse.

I concentrated on the apostrophe last week, and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, but this week I’m also going to let Noah Lukeman, author of A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, chime in as well.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is for those of us who are sticklers, the die-hard punctuation freaks who are ready to defend the likes of commas and semicolons to the death. Truss also addresses style with a bit of history and humor thrown in. She has the unique perspective of a British editor, and she points out the differences and similarities between British and American punctuation. Lukeman, an American writer and literary agent, sticks to style; he assumes that we come to the page with the knowledge, and now we need to apply it. As such, I’ll let Truss go first, then allow Lukeman to round out the conversation. And since I gave the apostrophe so much time last time, I thought I’d give the same amount of space to the comma here.

Following is an example from Truss’s book about how punctuation can change the meaning of a string of words:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing. (9)

Rearrange the commas and add a colon, and you have two completely different ideas.

Unlike the apostrophe, however, there is no neat little list of all the rules of comma usage. Although there are some hard and fast rules (as in always placing a comma between city and state: Jacksonville, Florida), many “rules” can be ignored and are merely there to satisfy the desires of some writers and editors. I’m kind of a “the more the merrier” kind of gal, whereas Lynne Truss uses commas less frequently. There is a purpose for commas, though, no matter how tricky that purpose is to define and apply.

More than any other mark, [Truss writes] the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:

1 To illuminate the grammar of a sentence

2 To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow

[. . .] On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune. (70-1)

I identify with Truss’s musical notation explanation because I am a musician as well as a writer. When you consider it that way, it seems so sensible. Why not allow it to do its job and aid the written word? After all, when we talk, we speak with inflection, and most of us don’t run all of our words together. But if you were to read a long sentence (such as this one), full of twists and turns and various types of clauses, without the aid of inner-sentence punctuation, you would find quite a mess. You might have to puzzle over a jumble of words several times before getting the emphasis just right. Commas can help.

Truss gives another analogy for the job of the little hooky-looking thingy that we know and love (but often misuse):

[B]etween the 16th century and the present day, [the comma] became a kind of scary grammatical sheepdog. As we shall shortly see, the comma has so many jobs as a “separator” (punctuation marks are traditionally either “separators” or “terminators”) that it tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organizing words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory “woof” to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom. Commas, if you don’t whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic about this job. (79)

Yeah, I am a wee bit guilty of letting my commas become unstoppably enthusiastic. You know that pesky Oxford comma? It’s the one in series that goes just before the “and”; it’s the last comma in: “I had an omlet, hashbrowns, and mixed fruit for breakfast.” My parents and I have many unresolved fights about this one. I’m right and they’re wrong. Except that they’re right and I’m wrong because I’m younger, and nothing I read (including Strunk & White) can refute their education. Doesn’t matter that I’m the editor. Well, as it turns out, we’re all right because the Oxford comma is optional. There are cases when it assists the clarity of a sentence. You could have lemonade, chicken fingers and macaroni and cheese (without the Oxford comma), or you could have lemonade, chicken fingers, and macaroni and cheese (with). Since “macaroni and cheese” is considered one item in that series, the comma helps tell the reader where the series will end. Okay, enough about that. You’re either going to be with me or against me (or likely not care at all).

There is one rule that Truss spells out quite clearly, and with which I hope we can all agree. And if you don’t get it. . . well, then you’re on your own, I’m afraid. “The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it” (96). Yes, ma’am. She gives several examples, and my favorite is, “Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.” If you ever see me write something like that, know that I’ve been abducted, and some doppelganger imposter has taken over.

So once you’ve figured out where to place that little bugger, Lukeman is the guy sitting in the plush chair with the notepad, watching you with one eyebrow raised, ready to help you discover what your comma placement means.

While Truss likens punctuation to musical notations and commas to sheep dogs, Lukeman borrows a quote from journalist Russell Baker that I like just as much. “In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard,” Baker says (28). A proliferation of commas or a complete lack of them not only guides the reader in hearing pauses (or not) in a phrase, but it shows something about the author, as well.

Knowing that I have a little problem with overindulging in commas, I was a bit anxious when I got to the part about what that means. I suppose it’s a bit like a literary horoscope.

The writer who overuses commas [Lukeman writes] tends to also overuse adjectives and adverbs. He tends to be repetitive, won’t be subtle, and often gives too much information. He grasps for multiple word choices instead of one strong choice, and thus the choices he makes won’t be strong. His language won’t be unique[. . .] This writer will need to simplify, to take a stronger stance, and to understand that less is more. (65-6)

Gulp. Okay, I suppose I am guilty yet again, although ever since taking multiple fiction workshops with my good friend Mark Ari many years ago, I’ve gotten much better about tightening my prose and losing adjectives and especially adverbs. I guess the commas are leftover scars, and I’m doing my best to remedy their use, while maintaining my own style.

But never fear, Lukeman also addresses those who don’t like commas.

There are two types of writers who underuse commas: the first is the unsophisticated writer who has not developed an ear for sentence rhythm. He is unable to hear fine distinctions, and thinks writing is solely about conveying information. (66)

Phew! Thank goodness that’s not me. Actually, I know I am also guilty of info dumping, especially in my early writing days. It’s something that I think many beginning writers fight – or don’t fight, if they lack proper instruction and criticism – and I see it all the time.

The second [type of writer, Lukeman continues,] is the sophisticated writer who (like Gertrude Stein) has an aversion to commas and underuses them on purpose [. . .] The danger for these writers is the rare problem of overestimating the reader [. . .] There is a need for marks – especially commas – to indicate ebbs and flows, pauses and pitch, division of clauses and meaning. The writer who ignores this is the writer who writes for himself, not with the reader in mind. He will not be a commercial writer, or plot oriented, but prose oriented, interested in nuances of style – but to a fault. (66)

This, I think, is where it’s handy to remember the image of the comma as the helpful sheep dog.

So if you scrutinize your comma usage, where do you fall? Are you scared that you don’t get your point across, using too many descriptions? Or do you just let it all flow and let the reader fend for himself? As with everything, I think a little moderation is in order here. Let the reader use his imagination a little, but don’t forget to leave a few cues along the way.