The comma, cause of anguish and frustration

As noted in my writingessentials blog and other website writings, the comma is the punctuation mark that, as Little, Brown says. “probably causes more anguish for apprentice writers than any other punctuation mark” (355). Commas are the most frequently misused, or underused, punctuation mark among first-year writers. Indeed, errors with commas represent no less than 5 of the top twenty most common ones by undergraduates on both the 1986 and the 2006 list (many of which we have covered in posts here, including the Oxford or serial comma, commas with coordinating conjunctions, and commas with introductory word groups). Yet, experienced writers also have problems with comma usage, almost equal in number of those by student writers, according to a study by Gary Sloan.

While the period, which we discussed in a previous post, “has the unblinking finality of a red light; the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down,” writes Pico Iyer in his 2001 essay “In Praise of the Humble Comma.”

Iyer also writes, “The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place.” 

The idea of taking a breath, or a pause, is a common direction of some teachers of English and writing for deciding when to use a comma. This instruction is a bit vague and does not help students and other writers who are measured by tests or usage guides that require knowledge of conventional usage rules. Also, unlike the 18th century where it was more consistently the norm to use punctuation to transcribe intonation patterns in speech, Mark LeTourneau argues that today “[w]e don’t punctuate where we pause in speech when we read aloud; rather we pause where we punctuate” (475-476, 480).

Furthermore, as LeTourneau points out, this “rule” is not reliable. At times, commas can mark pauses, as when used around non-restrictive adjective clauses. But commas do not always mark a pause when they are used with introductory or parenthetical phrases or appositives.

Lewis Thomas, who was a scientist with a strong interest in language, uses a term for commas that isn’t commonly used these days. In an essay called “Notes on Punctuation,” Thomas writes, that “[T]he commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops.” We discuss full stops, like the period, but other terms, like half stop, are less common these days. Thomas goes on to say, “It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows in all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself.” (From The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979:103-6)

His advice to use them sparingly is just and follows more contemporary usage. But how to recognize when commas are needed? Students are often encouraged to memorize the rules, rather than to understand them.

LeTourneau proposes a more useful approach in learning and teaching punctuation, which is to show how punctuation marks set off syntactical constituents. Martha Kolln agrees: “It’s important to remember the purpose of punctuation: to give the reader information about the kind of structure that follows” (84). Even in the 18th century, some grammarians recognized that “[c]ertain parts of speech are kept together, and others are divided by stops, according to their grammatical construction, often without reference to the pauses in discourse” (Thomas Sheridan qtd in LeTourneau 481).

There is no magic formula for accurate comma use, Most uses are conventional; they follow established usage rules. Memorizing the rules may not make you a better or more accurate writer; however, you need to learn how to take the generalizations conveyed by these rules and apply them to specific situations. To do this, you need to understand the rules. In addition, as discussed in several posts, a few comma uses are a matter of personal choice or require judgment calls. Writers develop the necessary judgment only through lots of reading and writing.

(References: Connors & Lunsford, “Twenty Most Common Errors,” The Everyday Writer (1986); Lunsford & Lunsford, Top Twenty (2006); Gary Sloan; Pico Iyer; Mark LeTourneau,  English Grammar; Lewis Thomas; Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar)

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