A clutter of commas

Posted by on June 12, 2012

Anyone who reads, writes or edits will notice the great variation in people’s punctuation styles. Where some use dashes, others deploy colons. Some avoid semicolons; others use them at every opportunity. Hyphens are as much forgotten or ignored as they are adored with the passion of a proofreader. Many of us can relate to Gertrude Stein’s description of having a “long and complicated life” with punctuation marks.

Such complication is conspicuous in the comma. From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression. Ernest Gowers wrote that the correct use of commas – “if there is such a thing as ‘correct’ use – can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste”.

But it’s not quite so vague and elusive as this might make it sound. There is such a thing as correct use, but it may be better to think not of rules but of conventions – and to remember that these change over time and from one context to the next. This is something Ben Yagoda looked at in a recent article in the NY Times. Let’s take an example from Charles Dickens:

Indeed, the quarrel, from slight beginnings, rose to a considerable height, and was assuming a very violent complexion, when both parties, falling into a great passion of tears, exclaimed simultaneously, that they had never thought of being spoken to in that way . . . (Nicholas Nickleby)

21st-century readers immediately notice the frequency of commas, since our 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.

The modern attitude is articulated in The King’s English, in which the Fowler brothers recommended as few stops as possible to do the work, and called groups of commas near one another “disagreeable” and “suspicious” – except in such places as lists, where the practice is unavoidable. Gertrude Stein felt similarly, writing in her essay On Punctuation: “A comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma.” A good line for a tweet.

Consider, finally, the following sentence: “His tangled hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading.” Asked to add commas wherever necessary or suitable, many readers would add one after unreadiness – I probably would – and perhaps also after glasses or up. But the original, comma-less line is precisely as James Joyce wrote it in Ulysses, and its rhythm is flawless.

Comments (20)
  • I took your entire post, copied it into Word, deleted all punctuation other than quotation marks and apostrophes, converted it to lower case, and then restored the punctuation in the way that my own tired brain judged to be appropriate. I was interested to find out what the differences would be. (Obviously the Dickens/Joyce quotes don’t make sense in context in their repunctuated forms, but we can ignore that for the purpose of the experiment.)

    It is likely that a small number of differences are grammatical errors on my part rather than valid stylistic choices (at around midnight I would not doubt it, but am not going to evaluate the matter right now), and it is possible that I failed to catch every single difference between our versions. Anyway, here are the results.

    1st paragraph: Exactly the same as yours.

    2nd paragraph: I did not use dashes before or within the Ernest Gowers quote. (Of course, one of the dashes is theirs, and the other you added to match it.)

    3rd paragraph: I used a dash instead of a full stop after “this might make it sound”, and did not use a dash after “not of rules but of conventions”. I used a full stop instead of a colon after “Charles Dickens”.

    4th paragraph (Dickens quote): I used no punctuation after “quarrel”, “beginnings”, or “simultaneously”, and I surrounded the phrase “falling into a great passion of tears” with dashes instead of commas. Also, I used a full stop instead of ellipses at the end.

    5th paragraph: I did not hyphenate 21st-century.

    6th paragraph: I did not use a dash after “suspicious” or a comma after “such places as lists”. And I placed the sentence “A good line for a tweet.” in parentheses.

    7th paragraph: I did not place commas around “finally”, and I used a full stop instead of a colon before the Joyce quote. The Joyce quote itself I punctuated the way you probably would have (with a comma after unreadiness but no other). Around the phrase “I probably would”, instead of dashes I used parentheses followed by a comma. Finally, I did not use a comma after “original”.

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 12th June, 2012
  • Adrian: This is most interesting! Thank you for conducting the experiment and sharing the results. Some of your decisions that differ from mine I could imagine myself making on another occasion. Punctuation is funny that way, and it often gets changed a bit when I’m rewriting or editing. I originally placed the line about the tweet in parentheses, but it looked as though I might as well have left it out altogether, so instead I gave it full, non-parenthetical status.

    Posted by Stan on 12th June, 2012
  • I find it hard to see how the Dickens comma deployment could be revised. That sentence, as written, is rather anachronistic to our eyes and ears, but, its actual structure dictates using the majority of punctuation we see. Otherwise, how would you change the Dickens punctuation?? (as a footnote to that observation, I wonder if the change in punctuation convention that you mention isn’t actually driven by a change in language choice rather than an actual change in punctuation convention?!)

    Posted by peacay on 13th June, 2012
  • Peacay: Your footnote poses a good question. I’d imagine both factors, and others, lay behind the shift to the more open style of punctuation that’s conventional nowadays. The Dickens excerpt has eight commas; I could omit four as follows:
    “Indeed, the quarrel from slight beginnings rose to a considerable height, and was assuming a very violent complexion when both parties, falling into a great passion of tears, exclaimed simultaneously that they had never thought of being spoken to in that way . . .
    Or:
    Indeed the quarrel, from slight beginnings, rose to a considerable height and was assuming a very violent complexion when both parties, falling into a great passion of tears, exclaimed simultaneously that they had never thought of being spoken to in that way . . . “

    Posted by Stan on 13th June, 2012
  • Stan, I’m a stickler for punctuation and use it at every opportunity. I love it! The only thing I find myself taking issue with (apart from the ubiquitous loose apostrophe) is the exclamation mark, when used inappropriately and too frequently. Recalling your previous post on text-speak, punctuation is not part of my 82 year old mother’s texting repertoire. She must have an affinity with James Joyce as her texts are a stream of consciousness; for example, after playing bridge last night with a new partner, she sent me the following text: we enjoyed de nite great we played mighty together ure scones are beautiful im just eating them now is there sugar in them

    Posted by Helen on 14th June, 2012
  • Helen: That’s a fantastic text message, and somehow it’s not hard to parse at all – though I won’t be adopting the style myself! I like the Joyce comparison: it is reminiscent of some of his prose, not least Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.
    If excessive exclamation marks bother you, you might enjoy James Thurber’s thoughts on them, which I posted on Tumblr.

    Posted by Stan on 14th June, 2012
  • Stan:
    The punctuation argument is similar to the scholastics’ question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It leaves me commatose.

    Posted by Marc Leavit on 17th June, 2012
  • Marc: Then I’m especially grateful to you for reading my thoughts on it! As an editor I find writers’ punctuation choices very interesting, though it is harder work when they haven’t grasped the basics.

    Posted by Stan on 17th June, 2012
  • [...] você pode ler também o artigo A Clutter of Commas, que trata do uso da vírgula como estilo do autor – assim como outros sinais de pontuação [...]

    Posted by Commas, cuma? « Teacher Fabio on 20th June, 2012
  • [...] A clutter of commas looks briefly at the subtlety and diversity of comma style. Gertrude Stein admitted to a “long and complicated life” with punctuation marks; such complication, I write, is conspicuous in the comma. From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression. Ernest Gowers wrote that the correct use of commas – “if there is such a thing as ‘correct’ use – can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste”. [...]

    Posted by Comma clusters and texting style « Sentence first on 25th June, 2012
  • American English insists on more punctuation marks than current British English style would require, I think, and is less flexible about them overall. Whole sentences joined by a conjunction have to have a separating comma in AmE, unless they are short and/or repetitive (“I wanted to walk and I needed to walk”, e.g.), so in the Joyce quotation the comma after “unreadiness” is mandatory. Adding the other two would change the overall effect, so I might query them, but probably I’d leave them alone.

    Posted by John Cowan on 25th June, 2012
  • I have that impression too, John, though it’s not something at which I’ve looked closely and specifically. I’d be interested to know if there’s been any systematic research into transatlantic comma style differences.

    Posted by Stan on 25th June, 2012
  • [...] talk of conducting a punctuation experiment sometime. It’s an idea that I tried out on something he wrote, after which we agreed that we should try it on a more organised scale, with more people [...]

    Posted by Punctuation experiment rehearsal « The Outer Hoard on 28th June, 2012
  • I am shameless with my comma use. It probably gets to the people who have to read my writing, but I can’t help it. I guess I can blame it on my American English. I’m not as loose with my commas as Dickens, but I certainly am not as tight with them as Joyce. I mean, come on, James, they’re free, man! (Comma to word ratio of that last sentence = 1:2)

    Thanks for the article, Stan. Comma use and abuse is always in my mind when I write. It’s good to know others are thinking about it as well.

    Posted by Joe McVeigh on 30th June, 2012
  • Joe: So long as commas are doing good work, there need be no shame. Comma-wise, that line by Joyce isn’t exactly representative; elsewhere in his writing he used them more liberally. I just thought it a good example of a long line without any.

    Posted by Stan on 1st July, 2012
  • How can I survive awash in a sea of words without a fixed rule on commas by which to, navigate? Can’t, we agree on anything? Are we a bunch of American congress, people?
    ; – )

    Posted by Chalmers on 18th July, 2012
  • Chalmers: What you have there are Shatner commas. I don’t know how Congress feels about them, but as a rule I omit them unless they coincide with convention…

    Posted by Stan on 18th July, 2012
  • [...] and addressed some comma questions. At Lingua Franca, he explored some comma beliefs. Stan Carey responded, as did The New Yorker, who defended what Mr. Yagoda called their “nutty” comma style. Johnson [...]

    Posted by Punctuation Soup | Wordnik on 24th September, 2012
  • Computer programs, like Microsoft Word, also have an influence on how people write. Sometimes I agree with the suggestions, sometimes I don’t. As you stated, Stan, people’s punctuation styles vary.

    Posted by Dulach Glynn on 12th September, 2013
  • That’s a good point, Dulach. A lot of people, being unsure of the rules, trust pseudo-authorities like MS Word when it comes to spelling, style and grammar. But such programs just aren’t trustworthy.

    Posted by Stan on 12th September, 2013
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