Thursday, November 19, 2009

Comma-cal Anarchy

The idea that commas represent oral or mental pauses is a touchy-feely excuse for punctuation anarchy. My mother, bless her, would say to me, “Wherever I would pause in speaking, I put in a comma.” I would explain patiently that there were real rules for commas based on actual grammatical structures. She would listen, not arguing, for me to finish, and after a moment of silence, she would say, “Well, I use a comma wherever I would pause in speaking.” We had this exact conversation at least three or four times. One literally could not tell my mother anything she didn’t want to hear. How’s your ear-brain connection functioning?

Myself, I have no memory at all of being taught the correct use of commas in school, elementary or high. I placed out of Freshman Composition, so I have no idea what’s taught at the college level, but I’m betting they don’t spend much time on commas either. I learned most of my grammar in Latin class, and I learned about commas by reading a style manual called Words Into Type when I was twelve, with a graduate course during my training to be a copy editor.

I believe many people use commas more or less at random, the “pause = comma” dictum their only guideline. Even in the classroom, mistakes often go uncorrected, and when a change is made, the mere deletion or insertion of a comma teaches nothing if there is no explanation. Indeed, the change itself may be wrong, as ignorance, misinformation, and idiosyncrasy are widespread, even among those we might account experts, such as English teachers. The bewildered student may well wonder why this comma was added or that one was taken away; few are interested or persistent enough to actually plumb the mystery on a case-by-case basis. Chances are the person who made the change can’t explain it logically anyway.

Years ago, as part of a class on writing for publication, I wrote several magazine-style articles, all of which used commas according to the rules. The instructor routinely added commas between subjects, between verbs, or between objects when there was more than one in a given sentence. Not one of them was grammatically defensible. His argument was that the reader “needed a break” within a long sentence. Hemingway I am not, and thus he was adding an extraneous comma or two to nearly every sentence. (I have since taught myself to construct shorter sentences, which is the correct fix.) He was a trained writer, a published author, and he was just plain wrong.

The rules for basic comma use in the construction of English sentences are actually very simple, very straightforward, and very logical. Summed up very briefly, commas are used between independent clauses, after introductory elements (some leeway here), between the items in a list, and to set off parenthetical elements. Believe it or not, that pretty much covers ninety percent of all licit commas. The rules can be bent for stylistic reasons, but you should know them before you start bending them.

Failure to use commas where they are required is one thing. Sticking them in pointlessly occurs just as often. Again summed up very briefly, do not use a comma (unless it is part of a list or parenthetical element) between a subject and verb or verb and object, between an adjective and its noun, after a conjunction, or to set off restrictive material. Again, believe it or not, that’s pretty much it.

Unfortunately, to use these rules, you have to be able to identify a subject, verb, and object, a clause, a conjunction, and both restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. Perhaps that’s where everything gets fuzzy and mysterious. So much easier to just stick in a comma at every pause…

These grammar-based rules are the standard in any well-edited publication, such as the New York Times, should you care to verify this assertion with a piece of writing other than my own. Notice that following these rules gives readers very clear traffic signals as they move along. Here’s a comma followed by a conjunction, so a new clause is coming up, a new subject, a new thought. A comma placed within a clause (for instance, between dual predicates: “I slapped him, and listened to him cry”) violates that expectation, and the reader has to back up and regroup to grasp the meaning. Syntactically, it’s like a stop sign in the middle of the block instead of at an intersection, and we all know how annoying those are. Profligate use of commas can make it necessary to read every sentence two or three times to determine structure and sense.

Because the rules are so clear cut, if you give the same piece of writing to two trained editors, they will make exactly the same comma changes, both insertions and deletions. Moreover, they will be able to explain the reason for every change, and I guarantee the word pause will not come up.

This is article 14 in a continuing series. Formerly posted as Comma Chameleon. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

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