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.Email this Post