The Trouble With Commas

You wouldn't know it to look at them, but commas can be a troublesome lot. You can't misspell a comma or forget to capitalize it, and you don't have to worry about how to punctuate one, because hey, it already is punctuation. But although commas are among the simplest writing elements, putting them in the wrong places—or forgetting them altogether—can result in unintended meaning, and annoyed readers.

Since most people seem to be increasingly pressed for time, commas have become less popular than they once were in media that distribute facts instead of entertainment. Newspapers, magazines, and trade journals are more likely to avoid too many commas in favor of high-speed reading. But the author of a novel, a short story, or for that matter any vehicle that emphasizes literary quality would generally prefer to retain the grammatical advantages afforded by this innocuous little character.

Commas are grouping symbols. They can be used to tie words together or keep words apart, clarifying a sentence's meaning and avoiding ambiguity. They can also be used for effect, to alter the timing of a sentence. Here's a very short sentence with commas in various locations.

I think, therefore I am.

I think therefore, I am.

I think, therefore, I am.

Note the difference in the way the words become grouped together as the comma’s position changes, completely altering the meaning. The second sentence is particularly obnoxious because it makes absolutely no sense. Although it’s possible to think out loud, or possibly even think pink, how in the world can anyone think therefore? And yet, this is exactly the sort of simple comma abuse you see everywhere. I like the first version because it doesn’t cause hesitation, although the meaning is clear. Version three isn’t wrong—in fact it's really the most correct way to punctuate the sentence—but people generally avoid writing this way when brisk communication is the goal.

So the sentence that’s just plain weird is number two. The words think and therefore are tied together by proximity, and remain so for lack of any signal to the contrary; there’s no punctuation such as a comma, semicolon, or period to signal otherwise. Obviously, most readers would figure out the intended meaning, but would also quickly tire of the chaos if this kind of problem appears throughout your writing.

This is a good camera for all-around use, the only real problem might be the shutter lag.

That's an excellent example of comma abuse, and this sort of thing is extremely common in otherwise competent writing. There are a handful of words that commonly function as connectors between ideas. For example, words like and, or, but, so, although and therefore are good at connecting phrases, and if you were to install one of those connectors in the sentence above (I'm going to choose so, but others would work, too) the problem is solved.

This is a good camera for all-around use, so the only real problem might be the shutter lag.

Personally, I'd probably use a semicolon instead of the word so, but that's just my preference; you'd have an acceptable sentence either way. Like commas, semicolons can be trouble, but that's another post. By the way, it's exactly because some words are connectors that you want to avoid using them to begin a sentence if grammar is the imperative. It's why your English teacher used her red pen to write fragment on your paper when you started your sentences with or, and, or but. She'd have a field day with my posts.

It might be worthwhile to mention, in passing, that commas frequently find their way out of quotes. There are exceptions, but if you have to bet one way or the other, you're better off keeping them inside the quotation marks.

"You don’t hear Hiram Percy Maxim on the radio much anymore," Stephen sighed.


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