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Spotlight on Punctuation

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Punctuation, Spotlight on Punctuation by Sally Evans-Darby on 20 May 2012


Spotlight on Punctuation: Curious Commas

This week’s spotlight on punctuation takes a closer look at the comma (,). Don’t let its diminutive appearance fool you – it’s a contentious little punctuation mark that can make the difference between a well constructed sentence and one that limps along like a wounded animal.

Some commas run riot across otherwise healthy sentence structures, lurking unwanted in the strangest places; others are entirely absent, leaving sentences bereft. The trick is to get the balance right between a sentence that’s cluttered with commas and one that’s aided by them.

Let’s start with a definition…

The OED defines the comma as ‘a punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence or separating items in a list’. The explanation in the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation sheds a little more light on the matter; the use of the comma is clearly set out in the following five ways:

  1. To separate items in a list
  2. To parenthesise sections of a sentence
  3. To divide the clauses of a complex sentence
  4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it easier to read
  5. To introduce or end a piece of direct speech.

These explanations sound simple enough, but comma usage is not completely clear-cut, however unambiguous the dictionary definitions might seem.

The problem with commas

The use of commas is often down to a particular author’s or editor’s personal taste, and as taste changes over time, often what was acceptable comma-wise a hundred years ago seems unacceptable now.

Take, for example, this passage from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853):

The fellow, by his agent, or secretary, or somebody, writes to me, “Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, presents his compliments to Mr Lawrence Boythorn, and has to call his attention to the fact that the green pathway by the old parsonage-house, now the property of Mr Lawrence Boythorn, is Sir Leicester’s right of way, being in fact a portion of the park of Chesney Wold, and that Sir Leicester finds it convenient to close up the same.”

The style in the 1800s in literary texts of this kind was ostensibly to pepper sentences liberally with commas. There is nothing wrong with this usage-wise – each comma in this passage has a correct place as defined by the Oxford A-Z. But nowadays the trend is for starker, sparser punctuation: today’s editors might well be inclined to divide up the sentence with full-stops to make it more digestible and less in need of such frequent punctuating.

Of the five points set out by the Oxford A-Z above, the second, third and fourth points are, I think, where usage becomes confused. Take, for example, this sentence here. It uses commas as parentheses – ‘for example’ is enclosed between two commas because it is a separate interjection to the thread of the sentence. But you might see a sentence like this written in any of the following ways:

Take for example, this sentence here.

Take, for example this sentence here.

Take for example this sentence here.

Take, for example, this sentence, here.

As an editor, would you make alterations to any of these? Personally I would say that comma usage is incorrect in all of them – in the first one, there should be a comma before ‘for example’ to make this a complete parenthesis. The same applies in the second example, where there is a comma missing after ‘for example’. The third example contains no commas and feels ‘rushed’. The final example contains an erroneous comma before ‘here’ – it is not doing anything here except splitting the sentence up unnecessarily.

To edit, or not to edit…

Commas can be a thorny issue. Often it is down to your good judgement as an editor or proofreader in deciding whether to insert a comma where you think one is needed, or to get rid of ones that you deem superfluous.

You have to make sure you’re not being too interventional and changing the author’s voice by taking away too many or inserting them where they aren’t wanted. The thing is, the presence or absence of commas can unmistakeably alter the voice of a piece of writing. Take the following minimally punctuated passage:

When making scrambled eggs you must try to get the balance right between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on especially when you have other things cooking at the same time or are perhaps making a cup of coffee too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery yellowish mess while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy and slightly burnt around the edges resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

The above example uses no commas. You might think this reads perfectly well, or you might find it rather ‘bare’. Compare it with the below example:

When making scrambled eggs, you must try to get the balance right, between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on, especially when you have other things cooking at the same time, or are, perhaps, making a cup of coffee, too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery, yellowish mess, while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy, and slightly burnt around the edges, resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

It might be the author’s preferred style to punctuate sparsely as in the first example, in which case you might be best to leave well alone (though personally if I could only insert one comma in the passage, it would be after the word ‘edges’). Similarly it might be the author’s style to use lots of commas as in the second example, though personally I would say the commas after ‘right’ and ‘coffee’ are examples of incorrect usage.

There is also the matter of the Oxford (or serial or Harvard) comma – some styles prefer to have a comma after the last item in a list preceding ‘and’, as in ‘monkeys, jaguars, pumas, and gorillas all lived in the jungle’. Different rules might apply depending on the number of items in the list – while you might add an Oxford comma in a list of four items or more, it might be deemed unnecessary to add one in a list of just three or four items.

The golden rule for commas

I have heard it said that the rule when deciding whether or not to use a comma should be to think of it as a pause in a sentence: try reading the sentence aloud and if you pause for breath, that’s where a comma should be.

In fact I think this is a pretty inaccurate way of knowing whether or not a comma is necessary, if only because spoken words are an entirely different medium to the written word, and different rules apply. If you apply a comma every time you pause for breath you might end up putting them in all kinds of strange places. It is also completely dependent on whether the piece is intended to be read orally or not.

Here is what I think correct comma usage amounts to, taking the Oxford definitions above as a guide. In my opinion, commas should only be used in the following circumstances (don’t forget, there is a wealth of other punctuation marks we can use too – semi-colons, full-stops, colons, brackets, dashes – more on these in the coming weeks).

  1. Commas separate items in a list. ‘When I go to the shops today I need to get milk, juice, bread, washing-up liquid, and ice cream’ (using an Oxford comma in this instance). This clearly reads better than ‘milk juice bread washing-up liquid and ice cream’ because it separates each item and makes the list easy to read and understand.
  2. Commas act as parentheses. ‘A carpeted floor is, in my opinion, much more comfortable’. The rule to remember here is that if you are going to use commas as parentheses in this way, there has to be a pair – never use one without the other. Consider ‘a carpeted floor is, in my opinion much more comfortable’ and ‘a carpeted floor is in my opinion, much more comfortable’. Both lack a comma to mark where the parenthesised clause begins and ends.
  3. Commas act as sentence-dividers. Some sentences benefit from a well placed comma or two to make them easier to read: ‘When I was a young boy, I didn’t like sports at all’ or ‘I wasn’t going to be here for long, but while I was here I decided to look around’. Both split up the sentence comfortably without jarring its overall rhythm.
  4. Commas act as markers in dialogue. “I wish I could have a slice of watermelon,” remarked Susie, “just so I could take all the pips out.” Here, the commas simply aid the flow of direct speech by, in the first instance, showing that Susie still has more to say, and in the second instance showing that the dialogue is about to continue.

My golden rule: don’t use a comma unless you are completely sure you need one.