Thursday, May 12, 2011

How to Love the Comma, or Writer, Edit Thyself

I would say "How to Use Commas" but that will raise too much debate. Believe me: I've seen a group of English teaching assistants argue about commas for more than an hour. Ugly.

What I do want to convey is the ease with which a writer can learn to love (and use) commas well.

So let's start here (can you read this):

Would you read it in your head? Of course not. Music is intended for the ear. So are words. Reading silently ("in our heads") is a recent invention. Once upon a time, few could read. Books were expensive, difficult to reproduce, and precious things. (Ah, but now we have e-books and POD.) Punctuation symbols, like the comma, were invented to convey a message to the reader. Think of the comma as a rest, just like the rest in music. Where that rest is placed changes the meaning of a phrase, just like a well-placed pause in music can change the dynamic or rhythm of a song.

Take this well-circulated phrase to understand the importance of punctuation (and commas):

Woman without her man is nothing

Notice I didn't punctuate the sentence. How would you do it?

Woman: without her, man is nothing.


Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Wow. Big difference, right? We all know the famous "eats shoots and leaves" example.

So how does a writer learn to love commas? I suggest you must, must read your work aloud. I've done so with every story, book, and essay I've written in the last ten years. Commas were invented in an era of reading aloud. Meaning is conveyed through the way they make a sentence sound. You'll notice improper comma use much better through your ear.

For a more "academic" look at the comma, please visit Purdue University's Online Writing Lab (OWL).

Write hard.


Unknown said...

Commas don't bother me nearly as much as that blasted semi-colon. Blerg.

Angel Zapata said...


Sage Ravenwood said...

I love the use of comma's for a pause. (Kind of sounds like for a cause). In any case I think it works for more dramatic sentences.

Reading your work out loud is a must. People would be amazed, the difference in voice on the page and off. (Hugs)Indigo

Josh Davis said...

Good read. I do use commas in the manner you prescribe, but I tend to overuse them according to most grammatical standards.

Any resources you would suggest for comma usage standards?

Aaron Polson said...

Gef - You just supplied a topic for next Thursday. ;)

Angel - Well said.

Indigo - I love the way words sound aloud.

Josh - The OWL site (linked at the bottom of the post) is really thorough.

Laura Eno said...

It's nice to know that even academia argues about commas. :)

Alan W. Davidson said...

Yeah, what Laura said...

I agree about the reading out loud helping detect the pauses. Hey, English teacher Aaron is a pretty cool guy.

Cate Gardner said...

Oh no, I hate commas. We've almost come to an understanding. Almost.

Whenever I read my work aloud, I start yawning. 'tis a problem.

Fox Lee said...

I have an amazing capacity to tune myself out aloud. I think because I feel commas rather than hear them. I have issues o_O

Tony said...

I teach my students that a huge part of editing and revision is reading out loud. I'd hate to be a hypocrite. :-)

Katey said...

I have always and will always struggle with the comma. But I love it all the same.

(And hey, I CAN read that... but slowly.)