Commas, a Necessary Evil

You can’t write properly in English without using commas at least part of the time.  However, most people who write in English have a real problem – they don’t know how to use them.  A sentence, when filled with unnecessary commas, can feel disjointed, stilted, and somewhat unreadable, which is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want.  Whereas, a sentence that has a comma, placed in the wrong place, not only becomes somewhat unreadable, but, in fact, becomes completely, unreadable.

Did you see what I did there?

Commas are important, no denying it.  But like every tool, they must be used the exact right way.  This really holds true with all punctuation.  After all, if you randomly threw an exclamation! point in the middle of a sentence? where it doesn’t belong (or anything else, obviously), it can throw off the reader’s understanding of what in the world you are trying to say.  The problem is, most people see commas not as a powerful punctuation that needs to be used precisely, but rather as a way to signal that they took a mental breath while writing.  As a result, many pieces of amateur writing are riddled with unnecessary and improperly placed commas.

Strunk & White are very severe on this point, and go on at length to discuss the proper use of commas.  Clearly, this is not a writing mechanic to thumb your nose at.  Learn to use commas properly!!

Aside from simply picking up your copy of Elements of Style, reading the section about commas three times, then viciously whacking yourself in the forehead with the manual several times to cement the memory, you can practice proper comma usage with this activity.  Take a page of writing – it can be from a novel you’re working on or a short story – and eliminate every single comma from the page.  Just take all of them out of there.  Now, go one sentence at a time and deconstruct the entire sentence.  Sentence deconstruction, if you’re not familiar with the term, is where you look at it from every possible meaning, depending on which words link together as predicate and subject, adjective and antecedent, and so on.  Once you’ve identified every possible meaning of your non-comma sentence, place only which commas are absolutely necessary to make the meaning abundantly clear.  If the meaning is clear without a comma, then don’t put one in!

Once you’ve done this for an entire page, you may find yourself seeing how much power just one little comma has to establish the meaning of sentence and thus learn to avoid overuse in the future.  If one page isn’t enough to learn this lesson, do two! And go get that copy of Elements of Style if you haven’t already. Seriously.

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3 thoughts on “Commas, a Necessary Evil

  1. I’ve encountered entire sub-species of comma in what is regarded as modern literature. “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” is an egregious example of overuse. Pretty much any stream-of-consciousness narrative also offends comma sensibilities.

    Silly commas!

    Though, I shall plead: guilty!

  2. Misuse of commas is surprisingly useful when writing informal dialogue. “I think she’ll, ah, she’ll yeah yeah yeah, she’ll be there by, four?

    And let’s not forget this monstrosity:

    As passed by the Congress:

    A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    The Article as ratified by the States is somewhat better, though.

    A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

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