Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In Defense of the Comma

Maybe I've been selecting the wrong reading material lately, but the following is also a response to an article I read. The bigger issues it addressed—the nature of good writing—have left me too shocked & emotional to presently respond. However, the author's suggestion to see if a writer sounds "smoother by omitting some of the rule-book commas" needs addressing, & I need a blood-pressure pill.

As a society, we are fairly well versed in periods. While there may be one or two trick questions in the advanced grammar books, everyday writing rarely gives even the least-educated among us reason to pause over a period.

Commas, however, seem to be the grammatical equivalent of the ancient Greeks' hamartia, or inescapable fate. The more educated we are, the harder we try to get our commas just right, and in the end, the harder we fall as comma misconceptions creep in upon us in disguise.

Despite the gravity of the previous paragraph, there is hope. Comma rules can be broken down into two categories: the Really, Offensively, Unkowably Stupid and the Easy. For convenience and in honor of The Princess Bride, let's call the former ROUSs—I don't think they exist, anyway—and the latter Easy.

ROUSs are the comma rules that even the experts can't agree on. They use their degrees and experience to back their tenacious beliefs about commas and to beat dissidents over the head. These include obscure rules and obtuse exceptions such as

One must use a comma after a prepositional phrase, except when said phrase fails to reach the minimum length of four words. In such instance, the comma is acceptable but not required.

But WHY? Why four words and not three or five? Why so many exceptions when there are already so many rules? And why the fancy language? Most of us would have to spend the better part of a half hour trying to understand this rule in the first place—who remembers prepositions or prepositional phrases after Mrs. Nelson's grammar test?

And so we look up prepositions, read the examples of prepositional phrases, cross our eyes, and hold our tongues just right. In the end, we still don't know for sure where the comma goes, but we've finally figured out why English teachers are so cranky.

Easy commas, on the other hand, are quite simple, and the wonderful thing about Easy Commas is that these are the only ones anyone's sure about anyway, so if you get these right, you don't have to worry about the others.

First there are commas in a series. You get apples, oranges, and bananas from the store. For formal essays in college English, that last comma before the “and” is required. This can be confusing because there are exceptions, but until you are a graduate student in a very few particular disciplines, these exceptions do not matter to you. Unfortunately, many teachers teach the exceptions and the reasons for them, and the rule becomes murky or lost altogether. An entire essay could be written about that one comma, about the trials it has faced, and at last in its defense and honor. It is enough for now that you should embrace this friendly easily-placed punctuation mark.

Second there are the name & date commas. These are the ones that always follow a person's name when he's being directly addressed:

Landon, it's so sweet that you hide chocolate for your wife.


Landon, have you considered that if you hide the chocolate, your wife won't be able to find it?

Dates are easy, too. To punctuate, not to remember:

On June 45, 1800, I married a wonderful man.

The commas simply follow the numbers. These are the comma rules they teach in first grade because they're so beautifully unambiguous.

Finally, commas do something magical that I was not taught until college, where it was suddenly a surprisingly big deal. This last comma rule could be called the Science of the Comma Splice, because indeed it is far more of a science than an art. One of the functions of the comma is to mark complete sentences, as we have been told only periods can do. We know to put periods at the ends of complete sentences, and we know we can combine complete sentences to create compound sentences:

Landon hid the chocolate.

Aubrey could not find it.

The comma, when combined with a conjunction (I apologize for invoking the grammatical term), lets the reader know that there's a complete sentence on BOTH sides:

Landon hid the chocolate, and Aubrey could not find it.

Leaving off this comma, then, is rather like writing a run-on sentence, and worse, placing a comma beside a conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so—not the eye infection), except in a series, in essence creates a sentence fragment.

Since most people can't keep comma rules straight due to the fact that they were subjected to ambiguous comma instruction as children, I can hardly argue that readers depend upon these comma rules for smoother comprehension. I do believe, however, that well-punctuated literature is easier to read and comprehend than poorly punctuated material. Think about William Faulkner, after all, and you will realize the value of a well-placed comma.

Comma splices—or unsplices, since we are speaking of their correct placement—are easy because they are like math.

Wait—come back. Breathe into a bag while I explain. Think of an algebra problem.

Remember to breathe into the bag. I promise it gets better after this. Let's try an easy one:

x + 4 = 2x + 2

Comma unsplices are like the equal sign. We don't even have to do the math! (See, I told you it would be ok.) The equal sign is very important to the balancing of the equation, but it's the easiest part to insert. Like an actual balance, the middle doesn't move—only the stuff around it. So one complete sentence balances another. Otherwise? No comma.

For too long commas have been misrepresented as an art, a secret handshake, the mysteries of which are guarded by a hallowed few. Whether commas have been held back from the common folk out of generations of ignorance or from some sinister plot, I am not one to judge. I am simply holding open the door, teaching the secret handshake, and inviting all who would come to enter in.

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