Josh from Bel Air, Maryland asks, “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 the conviction that grammatical rules and punctuation rules are practical ways of helping us love people. So grammar has a moral dimension to it.
Loving Others Through Grammar
In other words, if we could agree on certain grammatical features — that is what rules are: agreeing on what certain grammatical features 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, and 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.
Commas Gone Haywire
So, here are a couple of funny examples. Really more serious than funny, maybe. I’ll read Ephesians 4:28, and I will put in the commas: “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 [comma] 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 comes to the rescue to keep your meaning from being understood exactly the opposite of your intention.
“For love’s sake and for understanding’s sake and for beauty’s sake, I love this little servant, the comma.”
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: the serial comma. People say that 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] 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 be nice to your reader. Help your reader.
Delights of a Well-Placed Comma
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. 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.
“I have one rule for commas: The comma signifies a pause in thought so as to avoid confusion.”
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, for love’s sake and for understanding’s sake and for beauty’s sake, I love this little servant, the comma.