Because I’m feeling foolhardy today, I’m going to work on commas.
People have a lot of problems with commas. Why? Because there are 1001 rules, and nobody explains why you use them. Comma between two complete sentences joined by a conjunction. Yes, but why? And why not between this and that?
Commas for, well, interjections. Fine, but why?
Commas for clarity. But when you’re writing, what your writing is perfectly clear…to you.
I can’t count the number of times that someone has said, “I just put commas wherever I feel there’s a pause in the sentence.”
Let me say, that’s not a bad rule of thumb, if you have a finely trained ear for that kind of thing. However, for people who have been trained to sight-read commas, it disturbs us and makes us think less of the writer when the writer doesn’t insert commas where we’ve been taught to expect them. We can sometimes get over it…if it’s consistent. But we still look at the writers funny at conventions.
I tried to explain commas to a non-English major writer at one point, and came up with a couple of good guidelines. However, if you have questions, see your style guide.
(This doesn’t just include the normal series commas, by the way.)
An editor sees all sentences in terms of chunks of meaning. We do not see nouns and verbs so much as subjects, predicates, and the modifiers that love them. Remember diagramming sentences in high school? It turns out that diagramming sentences soothes and calms us, makes us into less angry people. But it also teaches us how to use commas, because it teaches us to think in chunks of meaning rather than in terms of words labeled with the names of parts of speech. Even grammarphiles do not look at words and think gerund pronoun preposition! all the time.
One of the main types of commas is to identify a list of two or more similar chunks of meaning. If you can turn it into a bulleted list, it probably needs commas in there somewhere.
1. Use commas when you have more than two similar chunks of meaning.
A dog, a cat, and a bird went to Bremen.
A dog with fleas, a collar, and a hundred dollars hidden in his name tag went to Bremen.
A dog ran, frolicked, and galloped on his way to Bremen, having eaten the bird and beaten the cat to a bloody pulp.
A dog went to Bremen, to Baden, and to Barad-Dur.
–To Harvard comma or not to Harvard comma? Harvard comma. Why? Because sometimes not using the Harvard comma is confusing, and it’s better to be in the habit of consistency, with regard to editing. People who try to avoid it almost always screw up by switching back and forth. (If you don’t know what I mean, then follow the pattern I gave in the examples, which use Harvard commas.)
2. Use commas when you have two or more similar chunks of meaning that could, in any way, be interpreted wrongly otherwise.
A dog went to Bremen and Birmingham the cat went to Baden.
But wait! For a second, did think the dog went two places, then have to correct your initial assumption that the second “place” was a cat’s name? I did, and I wrote it. Even if you, by some miracle, managed to read the sentence with no issues, you can see that perhaps not all readers might be as talented as you are.
If a frisson of confusion is exactly what you want to convey to your readers, or if you have two extremely short sentences that nobody could possibly confuse, you can take a chance and leave the comma out. In most cases, however, it’s better to put the comma separating the two sentences in. One, do I really need to harp on consistency in editing again? And two, this is one of those markers that editing types use to identify poor comma usage, whether it’s really so or not.
A dog went to Bremen, and Birmingham the cat went to Baden.
See? No confusion.
A dog went to Bremen-town baying songs of lost bitches, frolicking with glee.
Another example. The comma is there to make sure the reader knows it’s the dog in Bremen who’s frolicking, not the bitches he has lost.
You can also do this without the comma, but with a conjunction:
A dog went to Bremen-town baying songs of lost bitches and frolicking with glee.
However, that may lead to confusion as well: is he singing songs about frolicking, or is he actually frolicking? So you might want to go with suspenders and belt, even:
A dog went to Bremen-town baying songs of lost bitches, and frolicking with glee.
But really, using just the comma is just as clear as using the comma and the conjunction, so I’d say just use the comma, unless the conjunction is something like but. You can also do this without the comma, with a conjunction might give a reader pause, but we can generally sort out You can also do this without the comma, but with a conjunction.
Sadly, there’s no real reason why you do comma/conjunction with sentences and not necessarily with smaller units of meaning. Sorry, this is one of those language things that just isn’t fair, like finding out that a word that you’ve been reading for years is pronounced differently than you thought it was. English is the cruel, mocking child of an extremely mixed linguistic marriage, and you’re just going to have to get used to some inconsistencies. She’s beautiful but not entirely sane, you know.
A note: if you’re using a series comma, you should make all the items in the list similar. Don’t be all:
On the way to Bremen-town, I met a dog
- baying songs of lost love, and
- with three legs.
No, there’s not really a logical reason that you can’t do it; you’re expressing your meaning clearly, and nobody’s going to get confused. But every single person with a bit of snippy grammar-love is now singing that song from Sesame Street, feeling smug that you’re such a dork. One of those things is not like the other, after all. It’s another mark amongst us that you’re a grammar n00b, so avoid it.
Next time: Disruption commas. Also, I now have “Let the commas hit the floor” stuck in my head.