Commas, and what you should know about them
It’s National Punctuation Day tomorrow. Please contain your excitement.
I wrote about it in 2008 and in 2009, apparently skipping it last year. Since one of Professor Stacy Spaulding’s new media students at Towson University asked me about serial commas during a seance I conducted yesterday, I thought it would be good to honor the day this year with some remarks on the humble comma.
There are constructions in which the comma is simply required. For example: You set off appositives with commas: McIntyre, an editor, has seen it all. You set off non-restrictive/non-limiting/non-essential phrases and clauses with commas. McIntyre, who has been a working editor for three decades, has seen it all. You use commas to separate items in a simple series: McIntyre is an editor, an adjunct faculty member, and a common scold.* (For a complex series, having commas within the elements, you set off each element with a semicolon.) Though you might safely omit it with short compound sentences (independent clauses joined by and, but, or or), it should be there in longer ones: McIntyre goes through this with his students at the beginning of every semester, and he is relentless about it to the end of the term.
But the comma may also be used in places where it is not grammatically required. Writers of fiction in particular use it to indicate the pauses in speech. It may also be freely used to indicate emphasis, with less intensity than a dash. And the preceding sentence is an example of that use.
For another example of discretionary use, have a look at the post about a minor dust-up I had with a Towson University instructor after talking on Dan Rodricks’s radio show on National Grammar Day in 2009. Fortunately, the astute Jan Freeman had my back in the comments.
You do not want to become comma-happy, or dash-happy, or (however unlikely) semicolon-happy. You don’t want to overuse any device. Also, you need to have some idea of why you are using punctuation, rather than sprinkling it all over the text as if you were a waiter with a pepper mill. Know your tools, and respect them.
*I implore you not to hyperventilate over the final comma in a series, the serial comma or Oxford comma. Use it or not, as it suits you. But even the Associated Press Stylebook, which ordinarily dispenses with the final comma in a series, says there is nothing wrong with using it to avoid confusion.