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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Comma's Dirty Little Secret


The comma is arguably the most misused, least understood member of our punctuation family. People feel free to throw them into their sentences willy-nilly without much regard for the rules. What gives?

Here’s the dirty little secret grammar nazis the world over don’t want you to know: The rules are—well—bendy.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Commas come with a nice set of firm rules that someday we’ll talk and no doubt argue about. But remember what a comma is for in the first place.

It’s a pause.

No matter what rule I come up with, someone will certainly find it violated in writing—good writing, in fact. Because good writers do break grammar and punctuation rules, usually deliberately, and many see the comma as the poetic pause that it is. For example:

The way to a man’s heart is certainly through his stomach.


That's a perfectly fine sentence just the way it is. But is this wrong?

The way to a man’s heart is, certainly, through his stomach.


Actually, it isn't. We don’t need the commas to make the sentence correct, but they don’t hurt it, either. The reason has to do with the Reader Voice.


You probably don't know what I'm talking about since I just made that phrase up. The Reader Voice is that soothing voice in your head that you hear as you read. (Mine sounds a lot like Gregory Peck. To each her own.) In lieu of moving our lips or reciting aloud, many of us hear the words in our head as we peruse the page (screen). In the example above, the writer stuck in those commas so that your Reader Voice will pause and consider the word certainly. You’ll hear the sentence differently with the commas than without.

So why bother with comma rules at all? Commas do enhance understanding. And in some cases, putting them in the wrong spot will result in miscommunication. As writers, we have to know how the mechanics of our sentences work so that they do the job we’re asking them to do.

3 comments:

  1. At first I was going to argue the phrase "Readers Voice", but then I realized you weren't talking about the writers voice. My Readers voice is more like a bee buzzing in my head, Pecks is calming voice, lucky you.

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  2. Strangely, my Reader Voice is different if I'm reading work written by a woman. Can't figure out who SHE is.

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  3. Mom-in-law Diane Wahto had this to say:

    "Comma usage rules, as you say, are bendy. I gave up worrying about getting students to follow the rules except when the errors changed the meaning of the sentence. Even the various handbooks we used over the years weren't any help. I do believe it's better to use too few commas than to use too many."

    I agree with Diane--too many commas begin to read like hiccups in the prose.

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