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  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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?!)

  • 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 . . .
    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 . . . “

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • […] 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”. […]

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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?
    ; – )

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Hi, Stan: I realize I’m seven and a half years late with this comment, but I so enjoyed this. I have one thing to add, and it’s about the James Joyce quote at the end: “His tangled hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading.” I had to read it twice when I thought that “misty glasses weak eyes” might have suggested an entire phrase of one meaning. So I’d set off “through his misty glasses” with commas. (But, hey, I’m in the States.)

  • Late comments are just as welcome as new ones, Virginia. Taken out of context, Joyce’s line can give a reader pause – more so than perhaps it would do when reading his book. But most people nowadays would probably punctuate it similarly to you, regardless of location.