As writers, we struggle with getting our thoughts into words and arranging our words into syntax – which is already enormously difficult. Most of us expect the punctuation to take care of itself. After all, there are rules governing all that, right?
Well, yes there are rules, but they are not always definitive. They are full of if this’s, then that’s, but not in this case or that case. This muddying leaves room for discretionary use of punctuation. And in any case, rules are made to be broken.
Some writers – think William Faulkner – simply eliminate punctuation. Others ignore the rules and do their own thing, employing or omitting commas, quotation marks, dashes and ellipses in places that add emphasis or meaning to their prose. Inserting a comma can be a creative act.
An article last month in the New Yorker contains an example of an author employing a comma to make a point. In “Confessions of a Comma Queen,” New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris writes about author James Salter’s use of commas in his 1995 novel, LIGHT YEARS, which she happened to be reading for pleasure, rather than work.
“I was surprised to come to a sentence with what I considered a superfluous comma: ‘Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach.’ It stopped me. Usage guides say that if you can substitute ‘and’ for the comma it belongs there. I gave James Salter the ‘and’ test, and ‘thin and burgundy’ did not pass. If this had crossed my desk, I would have taken the comma out and made it ‘a thin burgundy dress.’
“The logic behind this rule is that the two adjectives are not coördinate: they do not belong to the same order. One adjective (‘burgundy’) clings more tenaciously to the noun (‘dress’) than the other (‘thin’). Bryan Garner, the expert in American usage, offers another test: reverse the order of the adjectives. Would you ever say ‘a burgundy, thin dress’? I wouldn’t.”
Norris, who makes a living riding herd on commas, said the thin/burgundy problem was “enough to make me doubt my comma sense.” Rather than go mad over it, she decided to write Salter and ask.
“He wrote back: ‘I sometimes ignore the rules about commas… Punctuation is for clarity and also emphasis, but I also feel that, if the writing warrants it, punctuation can contribute to the music and rhythm of the sentences. You don’t get permission for this, of course; you take the liberty.”
Salter went on to explain that in “Eve was across the room in a thin, burgundy dress that showed the faint outline of her stomach,” he was trying to emphasize the contours of the stomach under the dress. “’It wasn’t a thin burgundy dress,’ he wrote. ‘It was a thin dress, burgundy in color. I wanted the reader to be aware of the thinness.’”
This may seem like it is down in the weeds. But think about it, when you read over something you have written. Would the addition or subtraction of a comma sharpen what you have written?