Stu Burns is a fixture at the once-a-month Fine Lines reading/editing meetings. The following essay he penned is all about the importance of solid, smart punctuation. With that in mind read (and write) on.
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By Stu Burns, prose editor for Fine Lines
Punctuation, especially using commas, isn’t the exciting, sexy part of writing. It doesn’t usually inspire carpe diem moments with rebellious, creative souls rushing to build barricades or give eulogies to technicians of the nonrestrictive clause. Comma use is more like personal hygiene. People notice, even if they are too polite to mention it. Some people really don’t care, especially if their own hygiene or comma use isn’t that great. As a rule, though, it is probably a good idea to get this sort of thing right. That is why this blog entry came to be. I am going to share some rules out of the MLA Handbook and boldface some examples as I go.
Commas divide sentences, making them easier to read. When a writer leaves out a comma that rightfully belongs, the words mush together and become hard to understand. When a writer puts commas in the wrong places, they create divisions where there should be a flow of language. For example, commas go between adjectives that modify the same noun, like when you are describing a big, fat, fearsome, hairy raccoon. You would not use a comma describing an intelligent history teacher, though. In this case, the words “history teacher” make a noun, and putting a comma in there would break up the language when it should flow.
Commas also guide a reader by adding structure. If your sentence begins with an introductory phrase, use a comma to set it apart. This is especially important when you begin a sentence with a conjunction (like I just did) or a preposition. Joining two independent clauses with a conjunction also calls for structure, so use a comma when you do this. You do need the conjunction when you do this, though. If you try to use a comma by itself to join two short sentences, you get a run-on sentence. These are bad; structure is good. (And, yes, you can use a semicolon to join independent clauses. Some people do not like that, though.)
As anyone with a bottle of sriracha in the cupboard knows, it is important to know when not to do something. This applies to commas. Structure is good, but not when it breaks up words that should go together. The subject of a sentence and the verb that shows what the subject is doing should never be separated by a comma. Take this sentence:
“A transport ship full of brave soldiers, charged onto Omaha Beach.”
The comma in that sentence throws up a wall between the soldiers and what they are doing. Get rid of it.
Along the same lines, commas should not separate a verb and its object. This is a little harder to recognize. Take this example:
“The grizzled author sat and wrote, a long dissertation about an obscure topic that concerned no one but himself.”
The comma above breaks up the writing (the verb) from what is being written (the object). This is confusing. That comma needs to go.
Difficult as it may be for some people to believe, there has been a nasty war of words in the past few years about one way to use commas. Like the example with the adjectives above, commas separate a series of nouns, phrases, or clauses. See that comma I just used before the conjunction “or”? The comma before the conjunction that ends a list is called the “Oxford comma,” and there are some people who feel that it is unnecessary. Author James Thurber once had a fight with his editor over the phrase “red, white, and blue.” In Thurber’s own words, “All those commas make the flag seem rained on.” While less cluttered writing is usually a good thing, leaving the Oxford comma out can cause problems. Take this example:
“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife, and his mother.”
Without the Oxford comma and the structure it gives to the sentence, we get this:
“The sheriff spoke with two prisoners, his wife and his mother.”
Now it sounds like the beleaguered constable has his beloved spouse and parent in the pokey. There are a number of memes floating around the internet that demonstrate the Oxford comma in less polite ways, but kids read this blog, so you will have to find them yourself. I am sure there are fine, honest, hardworking people who don’t use the Oxford comma, but the problems you face leaving it out probably outweigh the gains. My advice is that you use it.
There are several other rules about using commas that are a little more technical. Some “inserted” phrases, such as parenthetical comments or nonrestrictive modifiers, should be set apart with commas. The same applies to alternative or contrasting phrases, even short ones. On the other hand, do not use commas between parts of compound subjects, compound verbs, compound objects, or between two parallel subordinate elements. These are a little more perilous; even experienced writers stumble around these rules occasionally. My personal least-favorite punctuation trouble is using commas in quotations. Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.
Good punctuation is essential for good writing, but hammering home rules is never fun, and spending valuable writing time consulting grammar references may not be the best idea. In that spirit, I will leave you with a piece of advice that did not come out of any style sheet. If it is difficult to figure out how you should use commas in a sentence, do yourself a favor and rephrase what you are saying. If you have a rough time writing, your audience will have a hard time reading, and no one wants to struggle when they read. It might be a challenge for you to let go of some beautiful phrase that blossomed from your mind like a lotus from the navel of a primordial creator, but the simpler language that you find to replace it may prove to be even more charming. In other words, if you find yourself fighting with anyone about how to use commas, stop what you are doing and rewrite. Some things are worth fighting over; comma usage isn’t one of them.