Commas Are Complicated

When I suggest punctuation handbooks or send someone helpful articles on the comma, the usual response is “Now I know why I can’t understand commas. It’s too complicated.”

The confusion about commas becomes a free pass to not even try to tackle the problem. And honestly, I don’t blame those who shy away from entering the morass of comma details.

My students’ summer inquiries, or laments, about commas inspired me to review the rules that I take for granted by now. This is not to say that I do not on a regular basis look up correct usage, and even then worry that I am making an obvious mistake.

We all agree that commas help us communicate more clearly with one another, expressing meaning and intention. Yet, for nearly every comma rule there exist variables and exceptions. Questions of style and personal preference come into play.  One teacher may insist on a particular usage, while another teacher prefers a different rule. As well, we adults know that different academic disciplines or publishers often have their own in-house style books.

No wonder students are confused. The one piece of advice I offer students is that the comma usage they decide upon must be maintained consistently throughout the entire piece of writing.

If I, who loves the game, am sometimes perplexed, I certainly have sympathy with anyone just trying to get the writing project off their desk with as few mistakes as possible.  Do I choose to use the serial, or Oxford, comma or not? What is a serial comma?  Oxford comma? Whatever are you speaking of?!

I’ve neither the time nor the inclination to replicate here what numerous online sites and books do so very well, i.e., set out comma usage rules and even list the most common comma mistakes made by students. I will, however, share favorite books and online sites that I consult regularly when searching for comma sense. These tools should help readers better navigate this complicated terrain.

When seeking help with commas, students often just want the visual rules – 1, 2, 3, 4. Unfortunately, some wrestling with textual explanations is necessary, even if excerpted from longer articles or sections from style books. I hope my review of different sources will help readers choose what might be the most appealing entry point to this subject.

Last week I went to several bookstores to peruse punctuation books that might appeal to younger students as well as those for middle school and high school students.  To my surprise, I discovered few books beyond the standard favorites that I’ve used for years.

Before mentioning books, I would first like to recommend Ben Yagoda’s website as a resource for parents and students on the lookout for precise, engaging reflections on clear writing.  An English professor at University of Delaware, Yagoda is the author of several books, including The Sound on the Page: Style 

Yagoda’s ongoing space, “How Not to Write Bad” is worth following, especially for his discussion of comma usage.   A must-read are Yagoda’s  on-line essays for the New York Times’s blog, Opinionator, which features a series entitled, “Draft,” commentary about the art and craft of writing. See Fanfare for the Comma Man, The Most Comma Mistakes, and Some Comma Questions, and  Voice in Writing. A former journalist, Yagoda wakes up his readers and makes us think more carefully about writing.

I use, in no particular order, four standard books for style and punctuation with my students.  These include Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The New Well-Tempered Sentence: A Punctuation Handbook for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed;  Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation; William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style,  also known as Strunk and White; and Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers.

To give a student an insight into the purpose of commas and a taste of why it’s fun to use Karen Elizabeth Gordon as a punctuation guide, I have only to read aloud her opening paean to commas:

A comma is a delicate kink in time, a pause within a sentence, a chance to catch your breath. A curvaceous acrobat, it capers over the page. A comma keeps apart two words, or bits of thought, that would confuse if they touched. Some of the instances calling for commas are inflexible, and the only way to get around them is to find another way to state and arrange your ideas. Other uses, though, are intended to make the reader’s experience easier, and are up to the writer’s discretion or whim.

For those of you interested, Western Carolina University’s on-line writing resources has available for downloading a one-page PDF of comma rules adapted from Gordon’s book.

In Eats, Shoots & Leaves Lynn Truss helps students understand the significant complication in the case of comma rules.

More than any other mark, the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of modern punctuation, and its consequent mingling of two quite distinct functions:

1. To illuminate the grammar of a sentence 

2. To point up – rather in the manner of musical notation – such literary qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow

In other words, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.

There also now exists an illustrated version of the original Eats, Shoots & Leaves – an enticement to engage younger readers. Unfortunately, feedback from my students on Truss’s book leads me to believe the text is difficult for young readers to penetrate. There are few headings and no index.

Recently, a high school teacher, hearing me complain about the dearth of useful punctuation books for elementary to high school students, kindly recommended one book she quite loves, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English  by Patricia T. O’Conner.

I bought the book and went immediately to the chapter on “The Joy of Punctuation.” O’Conner invites us to consider commas with this explanation:

When you talk, your voice, with its pauses, stresses, rises, and falls, shows how you intend your words to fit together. When you write, punctuation marks are the road signs (stop, go, yield, slow, detour) that guide the reader, and you wouldn’t be understood without them.

This is language any student can understand. More good news. In 2007 O’Connor delivered Woe is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English.

Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers, Seventh Edition, is a remarkable resource, especially useful to high school and college students. Hacker explains:

The comma was invented to help readers. Without it, sentence parts can collide into one another unexpectedly, causing misreading. . . . Various rules have evolved to prevent misreading and to speed readers along through complex grammatical structures.

Hacker details comma rules in one section, and in another she explains when not to use commas.

I find the Rules for Writers spiral-bound handbook one of the most accessible for students who want to take charge of improving all areas of their writing.  Hacker covers: the writing process; document design; clarity; grammar; ESL challenges; punctuation; mechanics; academic writing; research, including MLA and APA papers; and includes thirty pages of the basics – parts of speech, sentence patterns, subordinate word groups, sentence types. This book has its own website, where more examples and discussions occur.

The Elements of Style, now in its fourth edition, is a good starting point as an introduction to usage rules, if just for the famous dictum, “Omit needless words.” The several pages on commas are useful, but it is also amusing and informative to read how other grammar police consider The Elements of Style an outdated “aging zombie of a book . . . a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.”

I advise parents to have some fun with the resources mentioned, encouraging their children to play at commas. Students are more willing to meet the challenge of commas when they realize that everyone finds them confusing and that learning the rules is a progressive exercise that takes years. However, with each new rule or circumstance mastered comes more powerful, meaningful writing.






By Posted in Writing Process on Jul 2, 2012

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