Verbal Energy

The double life of commas

The use of commas, unlike that of other marks of punctuation, is governed by both rules and conventions.

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Summertime, and the commas come easy. Or do they? And shouldn't that be "easily," in any case?

The work of a punctuator is never done. A number of writers on language have weighed in recently on how comma use has changed and keeps changing.

There are two kinds of commas: those deployed because of a rule, and those that serve as a kind of stage direction.

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Stan Carey, writing on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog, cited a comma-laden snippet of Dickens and observed, "[O]ur conventions are strikingly different from those of Dickens's time. The usual style then was for 'close' punctuation, with commas guiding intonation and suggesting pauses for the reading voice. They still serve this function, but many are omitted and the remaining commas often tend to indicate grammatical structure."

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In my opening sentence above, the comma after "summertime" is a stage direction. I'm trusting that most readers will catch the allusion to the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess," but I'm counting on that comma to slow the passage down in the reader's ear. I have to make it "easy" to match the song.

Proper punctuation can be a marvel of space-efficient communication. The rule of capping independent clauses that follow a colon, which the Monitor follows, can let the colon do the work of signaling, "Attention! What follows the colon will explain or amplify what preceded it," without all those words.

The trend that Ben Yagoda, writing in "Draft," the New York Times blog on writing, identifies in his students' use of commas is a tendency to "play it by ear" – punctuation as stage direction, in other words, without regard to grammar rules.

He spots one of my pet peeves: the comma after the conjunction that begins a sentence: "I had to work late every night this week. And, my wife was out of town, so I had to get the kids to practice every night." (Students aren't the only ones who do this; hence the working-age example.)

Dear reader, if you want to start with "besides" or "what's more," or even "moreover," you're welcome to your comma. But please omit it after "and," "or," or "but."

And while you're at it, please remember that a midsentence "however" generally needs a semicolon close at hand: "It rained all week; however, we didn't mind because we all caught up on our reading."

Johnson, The Economist's language blog, wrote that Martin Peretz, a former editor and owner of The New Republic, insists that commas always come in pairs. "He once made his staff count the commas in an entire issue of the magazine, telling them that the number had better come out even."

But however "ridiculous" (Johnson's word) this idea may be, a good many commas do properly work in pairs. For example: "He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife and family." Most writers will get the comma after "Chicago" but many will omit the one after "Illinois." (Newspaper style assumes people know where Chicago is, and omits both "Illinois" and the commas fore and aft.)

Back in the days of the "wire room" and of writing out punctuation to ensure its correct transmission, writers wrote into their copy not only "quote" and "unquote," but "dash" and "undash," "paren" and "unparen" (for parentheses), and, yes, "comma" and "uncomma." It remains my habit as an editor to make sure these paired items all match up, the way you learn to match up all your clean socks before you leave the laundromat.

Is your vocabulary in shape for the Olympics?

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