The Comma, Our Old Friend

Almost every complicated sentence in the English language uses a comma, yet this tiny punctuation mark is often misused or neglected. Many find the task of perfecting the use of commas daunting because there are so many rules to memorize and follow. Although there are certain rules that should remain strict to maintain the fundamental structure of English, the comma can be versatile and should be allowed to change with time to reflect the current need of speakers of English.

Punctuation keeps English from becoming incomprehensible. While new words are added to the English language every day, punctuation marks have basically remained static for hundreds of years. In her book, Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss describes punctuation marks as “the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, stop.” Ultimately, punctuation gives a writer the tools of a speaker, like the ability to pause dramatically for the audience, raising volume for an exclamation, or inflect correctly for a question. If punctuation marks are just as important as words for expressing ideas, then each one deserves to be thoroughly studied. In this sense, punctuation marks are some of the most important “words” in the English language.

The word “comma” in Greek means, “a piece cut off.” The comma has caused writers trouble for centuries. Where a speaker can ramble on without a care, a writer must pause to consider the structure of a sentence: Just because I want a pause here, does a comma belong here? Will I look stupid if my sentence has no commas at all? Why do some commas have dots above them? (If you are seriously pondering that last question, I will discuss the wonders of the semicolon at some point in the future.)

Unfortunately, the comma can be confusing to use and, with the introduction of the Internet, relentlessly misused. Many writers are tempted to use them whenever a reader pauses to take a breath. Some writers argue that the original use of the comma was to indicate a pause, so we should be able to use it that way now. There is significant debate in the linguistic world over several issues about the comma, but most of the controversy is trivial (Let’s be honest; aren’t most debates in the grammar world trivial? That’s what makes them so fun). The primary (and most important) rules for comma usage remain untouched.

One debate in particular rises with the use of the serial comma (or Oxford comma), which refers to the comma placed in a list directly before the ending conjunction. For example, in the following sentence, the serial comma is placed before “and”: “Today, I went to class, went to work, and saw a movie.” Many writers frown at the use of the serial comma, including grammarian Steven T. Byington. “The purpose of the comma after [the first item] is to take the place of the omitted conjunction,” he says. “Consequently it is illogical to use it also after [the second item], where the conjunction is expressed.” Others applaud it for its assistance in eliminating ambiguity.

Personally, I love the Oxford comma and never leave home without it. I suppose there is a peaceful middle ground: sometimes a sentence is improved with an Oxford comma, and sometimes it just muddles it up. You decide.

This helpful infographic from Daily Infographic discusses the Oxford comma debate in a visual way:

Another common comma debate is related to the comma splice, the use of a comma to connect two independent clauses. In English, comma splices are generally regarded as grammatical errors and require editing. Microsoft Word will cram a green squiggly line all up in there. However, in her article, “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice,” Irene Teoh Brosnahan, a proponent of descriptive grammar, defends the use of comma splices, claiming that there is a large gap between grammar handbooks and informal written English, and that the gap can be closed to bring together both styles peacefully.  She believes that the comma splice has been ignored as a legitimate use of the comma, and that comma splices are sometimes necessary to successfully convey ideas. “Even its names are tainted,” she writes. “Comma splice, comma fault, comma blunder, comma mistake.”

Of course, the comma splice is rejected even more often than the serial comma. Comma splices catch the eye because writers have been taught to find them and fix them. However, the flat rule against comma splices fails to see that, stylistically, there are instances when a comma splice is necessary to effectively communicate the meaning of the sentence. Brosnahan lists several practical uses of the comma splice, including parallel syntactical structure, lack of ambiguity, and an effect of emphasis.

Brosnahan provides several examples of unacceptable comma splices. One is, “Seymour is a polite young man, as far as I know, he never even swears.”  Because the syntax is not parallel, there is ambiguity present, and the effect is not for emphasis, the sentence is grammatically unacceptable.  This sentence is acceptable because the syntax is parallel: “Some will gain, others will lose.” “School bores them, preaching bores them, even television bores them” shows that more than one clause can be connected with a comma splice and still be acceptable.

Brosnahan ends her paper cleverly with an obvious yet effective comma splice: “Handbook writers should admit it, teachers should teach it, students should learn it.”  However, Lynne Truss professes a more realistic view: “So many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous… Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look presumptuous.  Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” Did you notice the comma splice she used (“effective, poetic, dashing”)? No? Then her use of the splice was successful. Although it is true that comma splices can be used emphatically and can be supported with grammar rules, they should be used consciously and sparingly to avoid scorn from readers.

Considering these issues with modern comma usage, writers are again faced with a choice between descriptive and prescriptive grammar. The constant exchange of information through technology means that our language is constantly evolving, bringing in new words, phrases, and, in the case of commas, structural rules. A language must adapt to changing times to embrace new generations that want to use it.  As users of English, it is important for us to understand that grammar rules are only in effect as long as the majority of the population accepts them. Language evolves so slowly that it is rarely noticeable when a change is introduced.

However, like I mentioned before, some rules are strict and should be strict. Let’s look at a sentence I copied and pasted from an article online about top shows on Netflix. The article has since been edited, but I must have read it during an early draft. Here’s a sentence about the TV show “Wilfred” starring Elijah Wood:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan see’s his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit, while everyone just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.”

Ouch. Let’s ignore the misplaced apostrophe for now and focus on the commas. This writer doesn’t have a strong grasp of how the comma is formally used. Instead, he or she places a comma at every natural pause. Here’s how it should be edited:

“Elijah Wood stars as the terribly depressed, Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred, as a man in a dog suit,. Everyone else just sees a dog. Ryan is left to watch his Wilfred, in this raunchy and irreverent comedy on Netflix.” [Note: I don’t know what the writer meant to say with the underlined portion.]

Just for reference, here is how the website edited the sentence:

“Elijah Wood stars as a depressed character named Ryan. To make matters worse, Ryan sees his neighbor’s dog Wilfred as a man in a dog suit. Everyone else just sees a dog.”

A case can be made for many grammatical “errors.”  The comma is a punctuation mark that is currently undergoing a good deal of change in the English language, evolving into a more flexible and versatile mark. Prescriptive grammarians are panicking, descriptive grammarians are nodding. However, the comma has outlasted many lost archaic marks and will continue to exist as a staple in English grammar.

If you are interested in learning more about the comma, try some of these sources:

  • Brosnahan, Irene Teoh.  “A Few Good Words for the Comma Splice.”  College English 38.2 (1976): 184-188.
  • Byington, Steven T.  “Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes.”  American Speech 20.1 (1945): 22-27.
  • Cannon, Garland H.  “Punctuation and Sentence Rhythm.”  College Composition and Communication 8.1 (1957): 16-22.
  • Singleton, Ralph H.  “How to Teach Punctuation.”  College English 6.2 (1944): 111-115.
  • Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots, & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  London: Gotham Books, 2003.

2 Comments

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  1. I love your articles! I learned quite a few things about the background of the comma that I didn’t know before. And because grammar controversies are fun and trivial, I’m going to give my unsolicited opinion about the issues you touched on. :P

    Oxford comma all the way!! I don’t think it ever muddles a sentence. Might as well use it all the time to avoid confusion.

    I hadn’t really considered the validity of a comma splice before. I just always tried to use a dash, semicolon, or period if I wanted to phrase something that way. I suppose that could change the rhythm, though.

    Speaking of the flexibility of the comma, I noticed your use of the comma in your last sentence: “However, the comma has outlasted many lost archaic marks, and will continue to exist as a staple in English grammar.” The strict rule is that you should only use a comma between independent clauses connected with a conjunction, not an independent clause and a dependent clause. How do you feel about this rule? I could see it going either way.

  2. Haha, you’re right about that last sentence! When I’m writing quickly, sometimes I misuse the comma by placing it at a natural pause. I changed it, but I DO think that, at the rate things are going, using a comma like that will be commonplace and no one will even notice the mistake (except sticklers like us!). That’s the thing about descriptive grammar… It’s all about popular vote! Do you think the word “literally” should never mean “figuratively?” If the majority of the English-speaking population doesn’t agree, then the language will change with or without our consent. I’m glad you liked the article! :)

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