The Fuzziness of Commas,,,
I’m going to write this post how I would have when I was 13. Okay?
Well, I can’t hear you but brace yourself anyway… Mwahaha!!… MWAHAHA!!!… MWAAAAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!!!!!
Ahem. Are you still there? No? Maybe? …………………………………………………… I’ll assume you said yes…
WELL!!! I don’t remember what I was even going to say.…… Oh wait. Now I do… Okay….. it was something about commas.
Do I mean commas like comets, sorta? No! I said COMMAS you idiot!! (Who is that guy, anyway?)
Commas like THIS:
Actually, those look like water… or nails lying on the road……………………… <<<<And those look like ants walking…………
I mean ants. Okay, wait…
(Back in normal mode, because I have to show grammar stuff now.)
For the past couple years, I’ve been at war with myself over how to use commas. I’ve noticed that written English has a few holes in it, and there are some areas where there isn’t just one correct way to do things. (It’s particularly a shame when you mix into the equation people who believe that whatever their English/writing teacher said is THE way, and other ways can’t exist.)
Among those who try to use commas WELL, there are two different schools of thought:
First is the “liberal” group, which doesn’t really care about using commas at EVERY half-worthy point, for different reasons. Depending on who it is, it might be because careful comma placement is too much to think about, or because heavy comma use makes sentences ugly/stuttered… or because the teacher simply said, “Do it like this.”
Then there’s the “comma nazi” group (me), who likes to use commas at every spot that can technically take one… because, since you CAN, not doing so feels, somehow, wrong.
Let’s examine the last part of that sentence:
Comma Nazi: …not doing so feels, somehow, wrong.
Liberal: …not doing so feels somehow wrong.
Comma Nazi: I don’t like that, either.
Liberal: I don’t like that either.
Comma Nazi: And, now, that’s better.
Liberal: And now that’s better.
Comma Nazi: This is a great, but flawed, movie.
Liberal: This is a great but flawed movie.
You might see the above other ways, too:
This is a great-but-flawed movie.
This is a great – but flawed – movie.
As “correct” as the nazi approach is, there’s often something better feeling about the liberal approach (at least to me)… and that in itself is a form of correctness. Besides, between one magazine or news article and the next, it’s anyone’s guess what comma method you’re going to see, so, it doesn’t make sense to give yourself a burning preference for one or the other. (…unless you like adding an element of annoyance to your reading.)
Here are all the comma methods I’ve seen out there:
- the heck is a comma anyway reading this sentence is easy enough right don’t judge me
- You can use them only when NEEDED I guess, but you don’t use them more than that necessarily.
- You can, of course, use them more often, but still leave out some lil’ tiny unimportant ones.
- You can also, perhaps, use them way more, sometimes even if it makes stuff, well, you know, harder to read.
- Nobody ACTUALLY uses this method, though it is, technically, the most correct… but, I mean, seriously, it’s annoying, hurts to read, and, realistically, won’t take you far.
- Some people use two dashes with no space as commas—as you see here.
- Some people use regular dashes as commas – as you see here.
So, for a while now (a few months?), I’ve been gradually dropping my very heavy comma use, and going for a method that sits somewhere between Nazi and Liberal. Instead of trying to write lines that are filled with the most technical correctness, I’m trying to figure out if I can just make sentences easier to read.
See, I think people who at least understand how to read commas hear the sentences differently in their heads… so, it’s important that they hear something good. An author’s tone doesn’t come through on paper, so commas are one of the top 1 or 2 things that you can DO to try to get some character across.
(Note: There’s still a scary amount of guesswork in understanding an author’s tone and actual emotions. What makes this okay is that, even if we aren’t perfectly on the mark, we can still build a very USABLE understanding of how the author might be speaking. But, in very personal contexts – like writing emails, or chatting online – this blindness to the actual emotions of the person writing can be absolutely and completely disastrous.)
For comma newbies, here’s a quick lesson on how to use commas, and how to “hear” them:
Sentences change direction.
This sentence is going left, and now it’s going right. First it’s coming, then it’s going. I like pizza, but I hate anchovies. I could eat, or save it for later.
When you’re writing a sentence, it will change gears, just like driving a car. Try to feel the little pauses/hitches, and change gears there.
If you like horses, first you get on, then start riding. You just think first, then make a plan, and go for it. I liked tiny speakers, but then I got good ones, and now I’m in heaven.
Commas also help you list things.
I tend to run, walk, sit, and jog. I’ll need a tent, sleeping bag, clothes, and lots of other things. I met John there, saw Kate, waved at Tom, eventually bought some food, then went home.
Various teachers/books will tell you to end your lists like this: “apples, oranges and bananas”… Notice there’s no comma between oranges and bananas. However, I personally recommend against leaving out that comma, because doing so creates a structural hole that will get you into trouble. Here’s an example I noticed once, when listing “color” with “black and white”:
I like old styles, silhouettes, color and black and white.
(or, with comma)
I like old styles, silhouettes, color, and black and white.
Hmm, there’s a Wikipedia article about this. (They call it serial comma vs. no comma.) They have some better examples:
To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.
They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.