I have always had an issue with commas – I think it first stemmed from my English teacher’s rule of thumb that you should “put a comma everywhere you pause for breath”. I have since come to the conclusion that I must breathe a lot when I write, because the damned things seemed to crawl over the page like ant footprints. Since the first time I got a manuscript back from my editor covered in red (a large part removing errant commas), I have struggled with both overuse and the inevitable overcorrection of underuse.
Most of my writing is done by instinct, moulded by what I feel works or doesn’t work as the words flow from head to page, but not commas. They are probably the only component I have ever had to really think about rather than just coming as part of a natural process. To try and combat this, I spent a long time studying the exact grammatical rules (this website was particularly useful: http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp). The problem was, it was a dry, unemotional understanding – not the effortless “in the natural flow of writing, a comma would go here”, but more of a “the rule says a comma here, so a comma here” kind of feeling. Still, I took what I could get.
It wasn’t until I was reading a book for my kids that I came across a something that put one rule together in such a way that it “clicked” in my head. The book itself was called “Orange Pear Apple Bear”, and it was a simple yet brilliant example of how to use a comma in description.
The words read “Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear” and had a picture of a Bear holding three pieces of fruit: an Orange, an Apple and a Pear.
The next page read “Apple, Pear, Orange Bear” and had a picture of a bright Orange Bear holding two pieces of fruit, an Apple and a Pear.
Next was “Apple, Orange, Pear Bear”, and I’m sure you can imagine the green, pear bottomed Bear picture.
To me this was a fantastic visual representation of a common misuse of commas. People will often write things like “the plain was filled with long wavy grass” when they really mean “long, wavy grass”. Is the grass long and wavy, or is it an overgrown local grass hybrid called “wavy grass”? You need the comma to separate the different descriptive words so the reader knows that “orange, bear” means an orange and a bear, not an orange bear.
After this childish but oh so effective lesson, I started looking for more humorous examples of comma use to cement the rules in my head. Luckily, one came to me as a joke email from a friend barely a day later. It was a screenshot of a daughter SMSing her dad that read:
MSG: Let’s go eat Dad
Reply: “Let’s go eat Dad” or “Let’s go eat, Dad”? Punctuation saves lives.
I found it funny (though I admit, I have a warped sense of humour), but it also proves a comma point that I have too often come across when editing.
“Let’s go eat Dad” means your father will be eaten for dinner.
“Let’s go eat, Dad” means you are talking to your father and telling him you want to go and eat.
You need that comma to show that the last noun is not the subject of the verb before it, but the thing you are talking to. i.e. that you are talking to Dad rather than eating him.
This particular issue has also come up a lot when editing stories, because it’s an easy one to glide over in the flow of writing, or because the rhythm when saying the line out loud has no pause, so people think the writing should have no pause.
‘All right, guys, let’s go!’ is often written ‘All right guys, let’s go!’
Why? Perhaps because there’s a comma afterwards, so people think one before is not needed, or perhaps because people can imagine a swarthy drill sergeant shouting ‘All right guys’ as a single phrase with no pause. But even though there may be no pause when speaking, you need it when writing.
‘All right, guys, let’s go!’ means you’re talking to the guys and saying ‘All right, let’s go.’
‘All right guys, let’s go!’ means you’re talking only to those guys who are all right and telling them ‘let’s go.’
Linking the second example to the first, let’s try replacing ‘All right’ with ‘Let’s go eat’ and see if that helps clarify the comma mistake. Hmmm, not pretty.
To me, commas are a necessary evil, and to others they are just a thing to be used (or misused) in the natural flow of things, but they are undeniably very powerful. Using too many commas can make a piece seem stilted and hard to get into, while too few can make a piece run together and really hard to decipher. As with most things, striking a happy medium is the key to success, and the best way to stick that happy medium is to know what you are doing. If study is your thing, then by all means you should learn the rules of commas by heart – but if a clever joke will help you to understand, retain and apply your knowledge, then do yourself a favour and let your inner child giggle. Go on, you know you want to.