“Among the signs that more particularly betray the uneducated writer is inability to see when a comma is not a sufficient stop. Unfortunately little more can be done than to warn beginners that any serious slip here is much worse than they will probably suppose, and recommend them to observe the practice of good writers.”
It’s been over three decades since I was an elementary school student, so I admit that things could have changed in the years since I learned the basics of proper English punctuation. I also sort-of agree with my husband’s philosophy that, as long as a person is able to clearly get across the message he or she intends to communicate, over-focusing on details such as correct spelling and recognizable sentence structure might make one a fussy, pedantic priss.
That said, I find myself scratching my head at what appears to be complete anarchy when it comes to comma usage by many of today’s writers. As I read, I wonder, what in the heck are they teaching kids in school?
Or, do writers get paid extra for every mis-used or missing comma?
Or, why does a multi-million dollar publishing company hire copyeditors who clearly think a comma is the same thing as a period?
I do admit that correct comma usage can be challenging to master, what with all of the dependent clauses versus independent clauses and rules of enumeration and introductory phrases and correct dialogue structure…it’s a lot to keep straight. Indeed, I am willing to overlook a comma missing around a parenthetical phrase and to accept the optionality of the Oxford comma. When you go to the store, please pick up milk, eggs, bread (comma optional) and peanut butter. Throw in the ever-perplexing semicolon and things can get pretty dicey.
But there comes a point where ignoring comma rules becomes openly negligent. Thus we get doozies like the following (character names changed to protect the writer):
“You’re amazing and maybe you’re struggling right now, but seriously Tony, you’ve had to be okay for your entire life, haul around everyone else’s crap, it’s okay to put it down for a minute and let the rest of us carry the burden.”*
Robert never made me feel like I was settling for less than I deserved, he made me feel like having a new dream, where he was the center of it, just made sense.
No. Just no.
After struggling through yet another book full of poorly placed commas that created some pretty spectacular and confusing sentences, I got curious and started Googling around to see if maybe I’ve been misinformed my entire life. I don’t know. Maybe I missed the memo the Authority On All Things Grammar sent out with new comma usage rules.** Truly, since most of the problems I encounter seem to happen in New Adult and Young Adult fiction, I wondered if something had changed in how punctuation is taught or what is considered correct. Am I just really old fashioned, following obsolete guidelines like those people who continue to put two spaces after a period even though the typewriter has gone the way of the dinosaur? Like, maybe I’m just not down with the groovy, new bitchin’ way to write, dawg.
I was happy to learn that my understanding of the purpose of the comma is and remains spot on, at least as far as academia is concerned. In other words, it’s not me, it’s them.
I was also delighted to discover that the comma usage problem I find most egregarious has a name: The Comma Splice. This happens when a writer mistakenly believes that a comma = a period and can thus be used to join two independent clauses without the aid of a conjunction.
She shouted for him to come quickly, he bolted up the stairs and through the door.
It was a gorgeous day in Seattle, I didn’t even need to bring my umbrella when I left for work.
A simple search of “comma splice” will bring up examples galore. When I encounter this in a story, I usually come to a full and complete stop, reread the sentence, then shake my head sadly.
I see this a lot, as I noted earlier, in New Adult and Young Adult titles. I’m not sure why this is. I’d love to hear any theories. I’m certainly hoping it’s not another example of how our educational system is falling down on the job. Perhaps it is as University of Delaware English professor Ben Yagoda speculates in a piece he wrote for The New York Times:
“…I read a lot of writing by college students, and in it a strong recent trend is reversion to comma-by-sound. I attribute this not so much to students’ love of the Constitution and the classics but to the fact that they don’t read much edited prose (as opposed to Facebook status updates, tweets and the like). Two things that you really need to read a lot to understand are punctuation and spelling. (Not coincidentally, spelling is the other contemporary writing disaster.)
As far as comma use goes, my students play it by ear.”
Even following Professor Yagoda’s line of thinking, comma splices still don’t make sense unless young writers of today are hearing the world speak in endless run-on sentences with only a fraction of a pause between thoughts. I’m afraid, rather, the abundance of printed comma splices is the result of writers who simply don’t know that what they are writing is wrong. Whether or not the teachers of their lives corrected them, the lesson never sank in.
Indeed, I think a hefty portion of shame should be heaped on the shoulders of the copyeditors who let these things slide. No one can fault one or two misses within the scope of tens-of-thousands of words. Sadly, I often encounter comma splices multiple times within chapters and even on the same page.
Before anyone can use the comments section to point out that rules are meant to be broken and that using comma splices can be a stylistic choice, I’ve already read a handful of essays defending this rogue technique. I do concede that great writers can make it work, and that comma splices can be used to inject a specific cadence to a piece.
However, my opinion about this literary device is perfectly summed up by Lynne Truss, author of the fantastic book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, in her chapter “That’ll Do, Comma”:
“Now, so many highly respected writers adopt the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you’re famous…Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.” – pg. 88.
If I’m not so enthralled with a plot or thoroughly engaged with the characters that I notice comma splices, then perhaps they should be avoided.
If you have the time and inclination, take some of the comma usage quizzes listed below and see how you fair. And if you are a writer or a copyeditor, for the love of all things good in this world, please educate yourself against the Comma Splice and make the reading universe safe again.
NIU’s Comma Splice Quiz (challenging! – requires correct use of the semicolon)
For more generic comma usage quizzes:
Grammer.com’s Blue Book Comma Quiz
Rules for Comma Usage (quizzes at the bottom)
*Some feel that comma splices within dialogue are okay because they express the more fluid rhythm of speech. Fair enough, but the danger can be a character who seems to be rambling or talking really fast. Not that this is the only way, but here’s how I would have corrected the problematic dialogue with minimal changes and the same sentiment:
“You’re amazing, and maybe you’re struggling right now. But seriously, Tony, you’ve had to be okay for your entire life and haul around everyone else’s crap. It’s okay to put it down for a minute and let the rest of us carry the burden.”
**Actually, according to Professer Yagoda, the memo would originate as follows:
Who decides when and how punctuation rules change? The short answer is, no one. The longer answer is that presumably and eventually, the editors of “The Associated Press Stylebook” and “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and the worthies who decide such matters for The New York Times, the Modern Language Association and a few other enterprises reach a consensus on these matters, and their decisions filter down to the rest of us.