Saturday, October 1, 2011

In defense of commas, or: The homicidal panda.

We had a short digression of a discussion about comma usage at the Fiction Writers Guild board on LinkedIn the other day, and it reminded me of how much I miss the little fella.

Oh, sure, people still use commas.  Sometimes, if you're very lucky, you'll even see them used properly.  But like other niceties of our written language, the comma is beginning to go the way of many of the other punctuation rules I learned back when I was just a teeny writer.

Lynne Truss championed the comma back in 2004 with her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves.  The title, in case you've never read the book, refers to a joke about a panda in a cafe.  The panda sits down at the table, orders and eats a sandwich, fires a gun into the air, and heads for the door.  The mystified waiter picks up the wildlife guide the panda has left behind, turns to the bookmark, and reads:  "Panda.  Large, black-and-white mammal native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves."

The punch line, of course, contains a comma that doesn't need to be there.  What I'm finding more often these days is not an extraneous comma, but one that's MIA.

Take, for example, your standard e-mail salutation.  Say you're writing to your friend Sally.  If you think to include a salutation at all (which is doubtful, but that's a different rant), you're likely to start with "hi" and then your friend's name, like so:  "Hi Sally!"  Right?

Right.  But technically, there ought to be a comma in there:  "Hi, Sally!"

There's some fusty old grammar rule for it, which I will leave you to look up for yourself.  The point is that the comma ought to be there, but it's gone, kaput, seeyabye.  Read the two sentences aloud.  Doesn't it feel like there ought to be a pause there, between the "hi" and the "Sally"?  That if you drop the comma, you could be misinterpreted as making a statement about Sally's intoxication level?

Commas indicate a pause.  We're supposed to stop there and take a breath before going on.  (Believe me, I know what a temptation it is to skip the pause.  Back in my radio days, I had the habit of reading right past commas on the air.  I had to replace them with ellipses in my copy...like so...or I would forget to pause.)

Commas also set off certain elements of the sentence from certain other elements of the sentence, for the sake of clarity.  If for example I dropped all the commas out of this sentence it would be damned hard to make out -- you could do it but it wouldn't be much fun would it?  You might even have to go back and read it again to figure out where the commas should have gone.  You might even be seized with a desire to track down the author and hurt her, depending on the number of times you had to reread the sentence.

Sometimes commas should come in pairs, but don't any more.  I am more and more regularly seeing dates written this way:  "On May 25, 2010 we received a letter from you...."  Again, read it aloud.  Don't you hear yourself pausing after "2010"?  Then where's the comma?  You think you're done because you put in one before "2010"?  Au contraire, mon ami.  You need them both.

Of course, the debate about the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, still rages.  This would be the comma before the "and" in a series:  lions, tigers(,) and bears, oh my!  Style guides vary.  To be honest, so do I; if the sentence seems clearer with it, I'll use it.  Otherwise I revert to AP style, which leaves it out.

I will admit that I sometimes overuse commas.  I like to make it very clear where the pauses are, particularly in fiction, in which a comma can make or break the rhythm of the sentence.  You can quote rulebooks all day long, but for me, the comma's most important function is to add clarity.  Please, for the love of the gods, use 'em.  Don't make me track down that panda with the gun.
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