Use Commas to Love Your Reader

The following is a transcript of the audio.

Josh from Bel Air, Maryland asked: “Last year (I think it was in January 2013) you tweeted about how much you love commas. Could you expand what you meant by this tweet: ‘I love commas. No punctuation mark is more useful in helping a reader know how you want your sentences to be read.’” And it should be noted that your tweet had no commas.

I have conviction that grammatical rules and punctuation rules are practical ways of helping us love people. So grammar has a moral dimension to it. Anybody surprised? In other words, if we could agree on certain grammatical features—that is what rules are—agreeing on certain grammatical features, what they mean, we will be able to communicate and that is a loving thing to do. It is unloving not to care if people understand what you say. If you say: I am going to talk and write any way I want. I don’t care if people understand what I say. Well, then you are not a loving person, at least not in that moment. You are not acting in a loving way. It is unloving to cultivate patterns of grammar or punctuation that make communication harder.

So when it comes to the comma, here is a friend indeed. This little fellow is the next best thing to being there. I mean face to face communication lets you divide your phrases by pauses, right? But in writing, how does your reader know when you want him to pause? Answer, the comma tells him so. So here is a couple of funny examples. Really more serious than funny, maybe.

Ephesians 4:28. So I will put in the comma. Let him that stole, comma, steal no more, comma. Let him labor, working with his hands. Well, what if you dropped out all the commas or put them in the wrong place and you read it like this? Let him that stole steal, no more let him labor working with his hands. Same words, just paused in different places. Well, that is the opposite of what you mean. And so the comma rescues, comes to the rescue to keep your meaning from being given exactly the opposite of your intention.

And I just was online with Justin Taylor a little while ago, because I could remember him referring to this issue and he pointed me to this one. Where is it? Oh, there it is. The serial comma you know, people say: When you have got a list of this and this and this and this, you don’t need to put the comma before the last and. Well, here is one where if you don’t you are in big trouble. I would like to thank my parents, comma, Jesus and Ayn Rand. Like, oh, Jesus and Ayn Rand are your parents? Oh, no, no, no, no. That is not what I meant. Well, then put a comma after the second and. So it goes like this. I would like to thank my parents, comma, Jesus, comma—I guess it is before the and—and Ayn Rand. She is thanking three people not the parents who are Jesus and Ayn Rand. Well, without a comma there it is very confusing and you would have to re-read it and say: Oh, he couldn’t mean that. And so he didn’t mean that.

So rescue. Be nice to your reader. Help your reader.

So when I am writing I think about the comma as a humble little servant ready at any moment to make my pauses clear and, thus, make my meaning understood. So the rule, I have one rule for commas. The rule I follow is this. The comma signifies a pause in thought so as to avoid confusion. That is my rule. Given that rule I use it wherever it is needed. I don’t care what anybody else says. I am going to use a comma if I can help my reader not confuse himself about my intention.

And let me add one more thing and this would be a whole other way to go, but I have got to stick it on at the end here. I write to be heard in the ear, not just to be understood. I want what I write to sound good. I want it to have a certain rhythm or cadence or meter or pulse. And I think reading is more enjoyable and more impactful and more memorable if the writing sounds in the ear as good as it means.

So any place I think people might miss my cadence and could get help from a comma, I am going to stick in a comma, just to help them keep going with me as if they are listening to me talk into their ear.

So, conclusion. For love’s sake and for understanding’s sake and for beauty’s sake, I love this little servant, the comma.

Jesus and Ayn Rand would not have made for a happy marriage — thank you Pastor John. And speaking of matchmaking — what about online dating, is that a legitimate way for Christians to find a spouse?

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in physical form, in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For posting online, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. For videos, please embed from the original source. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org