≡ Menu

Comma Controversy

commasI recently received a comment about the lack of commas in my writing. This is just a quick post to say that my comma decisions are deliberately made. I choose a flowing style when I can; this means I forgo putting commas in common places.

In the 1700’s, commas were much more common.  Those writers dropped commas in places you didn’t realize existed.  Eventually, the pauses were dropped in favor of a smoother style.  We English writers will use fewer commas as time goes on.  My general rule is to first think of eliminating ambiguity, then concentrate on the flow of the piece (flow is a very close second, though).  Writing is meant to convey information and emotion.  If you’re sure you are impressing people with the unambiguous meaning of your words, then make sure the tone of the work leaves the right impression as well.  You want the reader to walk away with a feeling in their gut that comes from information in their head (and yes, I know I used “their” there, instead of “he” or “she.”  That’s another post topic I’ll approach someday).
Here are some different areas around the web I visited today that talk about comma usage.

Forum conversation

Blood Red Pencil articles on comma usage

Particularly helpful Blood Red Pencil article about Trask rules on commas

The New Yorker article looking into the book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Please weigh in with a comment about the comma controversy.  How, by chance, do you use commas?


(photo by graciesparkles on Flickr.com – buy her comma stickers on etsy!)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Forrest Cavalier 24 June 2009, 1:22 pm

    DS10’s writing this year got a comma overhaul. It was basically the only grammar/punctuation that needed any improvement. The problem was that he was placing commas everywhere, as if he were speaking.

    We sat down with the basic rules for commas in written English, from Voyages in English 6.
    —begin quote—
    Use a comma
    1. To separate words or groups of words in a series.

    2. To set off parts of dates, addresses, and geographical names.

    3. After the words yes and no when they introduce sentences.

    4. To separate words of direct address.

    5. After the salutation in a social letter and after the complimentary close in all letters.

    6. To set off an appositive that is not part of the name.

    7. To set off short direct quotations. If the quotation is at the beginning of the sentence, use a comma after the quotation unless a question mark or an exclamation point is required. if the quotation is divided, two commas are needed.

    8. To separate the clauses of a compound sentence connected by the conjunctions _and_, _but_, _or_, _nor_, and _yet_. If the clauses are short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted.
    —end quote—

    Reviewing the rules and a few rounds of “justify each comma” from his writing and he was good to go.

    It’s ironic that the “list of 8” includes a use of commas that the list itself does not describe. Since DS10 was actually placing those commas correctly anyway, I decided to leave that lesson for another year. (How many 6th graders use inverted dependent clauses and how many could identify them as such?) Other than those 9 uses, I almost never use commas. (Well, there is the comma in this sentence and the next two….So maybe I lied…)

    BTW, PurpleCar and I had the same high school English teacher. In my opinion she loved extra commas, especially when you were writing a speech. That almost drove me crazy once as she started adding commas everywhere. We argued, but in the end I figured out a “compromise.” She put her editorial commas into the text copy (in red pen – ha ha), and I got to deliver the speech however I wanted anyway. It turns out that being able to read music includes the ability to ignore all sorts of annoying mark up as you perform. 🙂

    • PurpleCar 24 June 2009, 3:36 pm

      Thanks for commenting!

      I think we should note that the commas separating address parts are for paragraphs only. I had a little contention with the 3rd grade curriculum this year, as they were teaching the old convention for snail mail addressing. I sent a link to the Post Office website to the teacher. No punctuation and all caps are preferred by the Post Office now. Personally I find that adding the 4 digit code onto the end of the Zip Code helps speed delivery too.

      Yes I know I didn’t put a comma after the first word of the last sentence or the first word of this one.

      If I wanted more dramatic effect, I would’ve placed the commas there.

      I’d say tell him to read whatever he writes out loud. That is an old novelist’s technique and it truly does help with style and flow.

      By the way, when did we have the same English teacher? Who are we talking about? Miss Martin? Sister-what’s-her-name?



  • Forrest Cavalier 24 June 2009, 5:44 pm

    “Read it aloud” helps with tense and flow, but for punctuation it leads to arguments with editors and high school English teachers, like Sr. Theresa. The rules are simple and solid enough.

    I remember Miss Lisa Martin. I remember being totally burned out by her overemphasis of foreshadowing in literature analysis.

    Maybe you can blog about foreshadowing sometime. I think I get it now, but Miss Martin made us think it was the most important skill in writing, reading, and analysis.

    I would describe it as an author’s way of setting up your subconscious to expect something. If it is too overt, the effect is lost.

    Is there a literary term for the irony of setting up your subconscious to expect something and then NOT having it play out in the story? It isn’t irony, which is overt. Is there a term?

    BTW, us geeks realize that commas are used in parameter lists as well, except for languages like LISP, where the list separator is just a blank space.

  • Kim 8 July 2009, 11:26 am

    I appreciate your effort in providing information about punctuation, particularly commas, as it is an area of weakness for many writers. However, after reading your article, I believe it would be beneficial also for you to research the use of “less” and “fewer” and post a discussion. These two words are frequently confused as in your own sentence from your comma post “We English writers will use less commas.”