A Passion for Commas

by Alan Eggleston

A writer friend, Will Conley, posted a thought piece on his Facebook page, a small excerpt here:

Hey, Passion. Righteous Indignation called…

When I first read it, I thought it sounded like poetry, almost Shakespearean, thus:

Hey, Passion.
Righteous Indignation, called.


And Will responded, “Oh, how a comma says so much.”

That got me thinking, too. People treat punctuation so off-handedly, yet punctuation is as much a tool of communication as are words. And no punctuation mark is more simple yet speaks more complexly than the comma.

The comma commands order in a series. It separates warring clauses. Just as important, it announces an introductory phrase, says farewell to the concluding phrase, too.  The comma hands us off in a letter greeting or conclusion, and sets off parts of a whole such as location or time.

You won’t see these many diverse roles for the period, the exclamation point, or the question mark – let alone the colon, semi-colon, slash, or dash!

Yet no mark is as misunderstood, misused, abused, or underused as the comma. I once accused someone on a corporate approval route of using a comma shaker when reviewing copy, because he seemed to indiscriminately add commas, and then I couldn’t make any sense out of many of them. One of our publication editors even added commas of her own, in an attempt to provide some consistency between all the writers and reviewers. Oh, the humanity! Among writers, these just bred confusion.

I got into a discussion with someone on Twitter recently about punctuation that indicates a “pause.” She felt nothing was adequately enough understood by readers to handle the job, including the comma, the ellipsis, or any of the dashes. I pointed out that in print, all had been well established over many tens to hundreds of years for their various purposes and variations of pauses, but she insisted that today’s reader can’t know what is in the writer’s mind by these punctuation marks. I think they can, if they are used and edited consistently.

That is why I still favor the Oxford (or serial) comma. Yes, I know, often you can deduce the meaning without using that final comma, but the goal of the writer and editor aren’t to leave a question in the mind of the reader but to be clear. Leave the questions for the poets and philosophers. Our purpose as editors, in particular, is to be clear. Thus, except in the case where I am trying to fit a house style in which they already follow the no-Oxford rule, I refuse not to use the Oxford comma. I nurture a passion for commas.

Yes, Will, “a comma says so much.” And we as editors owe it to our readers to give voice to those commas so that our readers may clearly hear.


8 thoughts on “A Passion for Commas

  1. “She felt nothing was adequately enough understood by readers to handle the job, including the comma, the ellipsis, or any of the dashes” – so she beleived that no-one understands ANY punctuation at all?

    Hooray! We’ll leave it all out then.

    • I wouldn’t go on her word. She wanted to invent a new punctuation mark (actually, a combination of marks). I tried to explain that everything was covered and that readers understood through context what writers meant, but she was intent on coming up with a new mark. And, again, this had to do with indicating pauses, not all punctuation.

      As I finally said to her, “Give it a try and see how it works out.” If you feel you can communicate adequately without punctuation, that’s up to you.

      • Ahhh, inventing a new punctuation mark. What an excellent idea. That will help the readers who don’t know the ones in use for all these years.

      • I’m sorry, Phil, I didn’t see that you had replied again. Yes, my hope was this person, intent on going her own way, would try it and fail, then stop messing around with it. It’s hard enough for most people to remember the punctuation that already exists, they certainly won’t adopt an arbitrary new one.

  2. Pingback: Editing Frenzy: 2013 365 Challenge #162 | writermummy

  3. Pingback: Grammar & Punctuation:The Mystery of the Comma and the Vocative Case |

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