Commas are like petals. If you arrange them consistently you can come up with a lovely flower
When I went to elementary school, and dinosaurs still roamed the world, my Neanderthalian teacher told me that commas had to be used to signal pauses. This suggestion was short and simple, but it presented a notable drawback: it worked only in some situations. In many others, all those commas I sometimes sprinkled my texts with looked like dead soldiers after a particularly bloody battle.
In reality, I would soon discover, and certainly not thanks to that teacher, commas can signal pauses, but their usage is governed by a bunch of rules that, if applied consistently, help us to improve clarity.
Let’s see why.
Comma usage and clarity
A) Martin didn’t write the letter because he was angry.
Sentence A is a real clusterfuck. This is so because it’s ambiguous. In fact, readers don’t know whether Martin did write the letter, but not out of anger, or Martin didn’t write the letter at all because he was angry.
With a simple comma everything clears up:
Martin didn’t write the letter, because he was angry.
Because he was angry, Martin didn’t write the letter.
This last variation, I must say, seems to be easier to process even without a comma. But given that the best writing style is a style as transparent as possible, we should use a comma to make sure no reader needs to pause to decipher the intentions behind our writing.
Comma usage and style
The case for using commas settled, we have nonetheless to acknowledge that too many commas, even when used properly, can give our writing an unpleasant and halting rhythm.
1) The girl, who lived next door, and whom I only rarely saw, mostly when I went out in the afternoon, for my daily stroll, never met my eyes.
2) The girl lived next door, but on the rare occasions I saw her, mostly when I went out in the afternoon for my daily stroll, she never met my eyes.
In 2) I would say the writing flows decidedly better. Yet, on the whole, the articulate and somehow ponderous style of 1) is still hinted at.
This doesn’t mean we should never write like in 1). However, we should have very good reasons to choose such a style.
In fact, even if in our novel we have a great main character who can speak a dozen languages, knows everything there’s to know about computers and malicious viruses, and knows all the latest combat techniques, we are in for a rude awakening if we make him or her speak like in 1) all the time.
Comma usage – awareness is key
Just thinking about how commas can manipulate clarity, and the speed a text can be read, we can begin to understand the immense power that such a small sign possesses.
In any case, in the next posts I’m going to take a deeper look at the rules governing comma usage.