Punctuation Marks: The Comma Crisis
by S.E. SEVER Views: 3702
I’ve never been a great fan of commas and often find their usage elusive. I’m more of a full stop person. Brief. To the point. Impatient. Even though full stops are the remedy for my short attention span, I take heed of the significance of commas in creative writing, as they help you to be more lyrical, interweave your sentences like a tapestry, and add sophistication, wit and flow. Just like in this last sentence. Still though if I were to write this sentence without conscious effort I would write it as below:
Full stops are the remedy for my short attention span. However, I take heed of the significance of commas in creative writing: they help you to be more lyrical and interweave your sentences like a tapestry. They add sophistication, wit and flow.
Punctuation-wise both versions are correct. Yet some people prefer the previous, others prefer the latter. For a writer, the problem occurs when editors disagree with each other. In numerous situations I have seen an editor add a comma to a text while another deleted it. Once I asked them their reasoning and both editors gave me rational explanations. The sentence in question was this:
The seminar group comprised Mr Hull, university professor, Mrs Yen, expert in autonomics, and Mr Franz, chief officer.
The one who deleted the supposedly unnecessary comma claimed: this is called an Oxford comma, as the Oxford University Press requires a final comma before ‘and’ on every occasion; however, it’s more of an American thing; it’s not common in the UK. The other editor who put the very same comma back was also very plausible: you don’t need a comma here because it’s followed by ‘and’, you need it because the phrase is descriptive and you always put a comma on either side of descriptive phrases. It is not comma splicing; a comma is necessary here. This debate caused by a single comma made me think of the issue called ‘comma splicing’. This is the name given to that tempting action often mastered by ‘comma freaks’. It can be dangerous as it gives the impression that you’re in a breathless rush and rather informal: the least desired ways to be perceived if you’re applying for a job or writing a formal letter. I recently encountered a good example of comma splicing. Have a look at this letter sent to a writer colleague of mine. What’s your impression of the person who wrote it?
“Hello, I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel, I always loved sci-fi, especially the ones with a hint of horror in it, but often it’s difficult to keep the right balance, isn’t it? I love your work, I’m highly influenced by it and even though my book is half-finished, I thought, it’s time to find an agent, then I wondered, as a published writer yourself, if you could help me, not that I’m asking for a personal introduction, but just a name, which I can address my manuscript, as I’d like to send something off soon, I can’t wait to get feedback, they say it’s good to get a professional opinion at an early stage, I’m very hopeful, many thanks for your help.”
It’s amazing that the writer of this letter managed to use a full stop only once through the entire paragraph. My colleague wrote a brief response to highlight the obvious problem. He thought it might help our eager candidate but our candidate didn’t take it well. She refused to acknowledge the fact that her writing had grammatical problems; she said it was her ‘style’, which was influenced by Jane Austen! Both my colleague and I were speechless. There was no point in further discussion. My colleague sombrely wished the applicant good luck. It’s true that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, long sentences, Latin phrases and plenty of punctuation—especially commas—were in fashion. Jane Austen was indeed one the authors who wrote in the fashion of her time. Look at the below paragraph from her book Persuasion.
“There was a momentary expression in Captain Wentworth’s face at this speech, a certain glance of his bright eye, and curl of his handsome mouth, which convinced Anne, that instead of sharing in Mrs Musgrove’s kind wishes, as to her son, he had probably been at some pains to get rid of him; but it was too transient an indulgence of self-amusement to be detected by any who understood him less than herself; in another moment he was perfectly collected and serious, and almost instantly afterwards coming up to the sofa, on which she and Mrs Musgrove were sitting, took a place by the latter, and entered into conversation with her, in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent’s feelings.”
Jane Austen, Persuasion
In the twentieth century, this trend changed. For example, Ernest Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and managed to get rid of commas almost entirely. He shortened his sentences to the simplest possible structures.
I was tired of rum St James without thinking about it. Then the story was finished and I was very tired. I read the last paragraph and then I looked up and looked for the girl and she had gone. I hope she’s gone with a good man, I thought. But felt sad.
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
The variation in comma usage doesn’t stop there; different English-speaking countries acquire different rules. For example, Americans love their commas. Often books written in US English have more commas than those written in UK English. Once, American author Anne McAllister said that to figure out what was happening in a book written in British English, she has to go back and re-read some sentences. What can we do about the comma crisis then? How can we find the balance between the rules and our own style and preferences? My suggestion is simple: Write the first draft as if you were speaking to someone and then read it three times to check for three different aspects:
- Check the technical aspect: Read your text and check whether you have all the commas grammatically necessary.
- Check the meaning: Read it again to make sure that each sentence delivers your message clearly. Alter your commas until every sentence is crystal clear.
- Check the tone: Read your text another time to see if you have the right tone overall.
S.E. is the Founder of Mash Stories. She has had short stories published in fiction magazines across the US and the UK. One of her stories was included in The Subtopian: Selected Stories. Her poetry book, Before Me, is published by Thought Catalog Books, New York. She is currently working on a science fiction novel called Split Watch. You can read some of her short stories and poems at http://sesever.com.
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