What’s All the Comma-tion?

The country’s major newspapers have been writing about commas recently. Have the dog days of summer arrived early?

University of Delaware Professor Ben Yagoda started the comma-tion in his New York Times Opinionator. If you count the most recently posted comma questions installment, in which the professor answers a lot of questions from readers about commas, there have now been three in the comma series.

We don’t want to resurrect everything that Yagoda says; you can read his series here. He rightly points out that commas are a complicated business. Comma rules change with circumstances. In some cases, they are used to set off unique items but not those that aren’t so special. Sometimes using a comma is simply a choice. If you do manage to learn all these rules, be prepared for change. Today’s comma rules are not the same as they were thirty years ago.

For such a small mark, commas do, in fact, make a great deal of difference. They can change whole the meanings of sentences. Almost everybody is familiar with the title of Lynn Truss’ book EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES which completely changes meaning without the comma. There are readings of parts of the U.S. Constitution which hinge on comma use.

It is the rules surrounding commas that are comma-cal as Washington Post blogger Alexandra Petri wrote in her blog last week:

“Commas are like forks. For the most part, it is obvious what to do with them and where to put them. But then sometimes you find yourself confronted with six or seven of varying shapes and functions and have to try not to grab the wrong one in order to avoid awkward pauses.”
“We’re all lost and adrift, or lost, and adrift, or lost,,,,,, and,,, adrift.”

What’s a writer to do? One of us at The Word Process, not saying who, used to solve the problem by simply omitting them from her writing except for occasionally in which case they were inserted in places that were obviously wrong, perhaps to mark pauses in writing which are not at all the same thing as pauses in reading. (In any case, placing commas by sound is not correct; that would be too easy.)

Really, who can stop to figure out about commas when they are writing?