Doesn’t it sometimes seem as though punctuation was only designed to befuddle us and give English teachers an excuse to mark down papers? Sure, punctuation has its place, but the so-called rules can be obscure and arbitrary, with no system or logic discernible to the average reader and writer. The humble comma seems especially troublesome, even intractable.
A period is firm and decisive: Stop here. The exclamation mark is bold, even flashy: Look at it! A question mark knows what it’s about: Why wouldn’t it? Even that annoying semicolon is reasonably straightforward; you just need a complete sentence on either side. But the comma is tentative and uncertain. You can stop, or maybe not. Because it is more malleable than most other punctuation marks, so open to interpretation, it is easier to misuse. The comma skitters around on the page without really knowing where it’s going, rather like a shrimp in the ocean trying to avoid being eaten.
Here’s a quick test: Which of the following sentences is correct?
I picked up the book from the table and thumbed through it.
I picked up the book from the table, and I thumbed through it.
Trick question! Both are grammatically correct. But do you sense a subtle difference between the two? The first is generally accepted usage, straightforward and unassuming, a simple statement of fact. The comma in the second one, on the other hand, inserts a momentary hesitation, as if I picked up the book and looked at the title and author’s name, perhaps ran my hand down the spine, before letting the pages fan through my fingers. Can’t you almost feel the heft of the volume and the texture of the cover?
A recent Internet meme touts how “commas save lives”: “Let’s eat, Grandma!” versus “Let’s eat Grandma!” While this cleverness is something of an oversimplification, the underlying point is valid. Commas furnish clues to the writer’s tone and meaning. They organize and structure sentences, clarifying ideas and helping the reader make sense of the words on the page.
Such is the understated—and underused—power of the comma. The comma gives you a chance to pause, to catch your breath, to think about the words you just read and what they mean, and even how you feel about them. Commas are visual cues to the brief lulls that occur naturally in speech, without us even thinking about them. But therein lies the problem. Using commas requires a conscious choice in writing, and when you add them based on rules you only vaguely remember from third grade, your sentences can lose their natural flow.
A better approach is to read your sentences out loud. Listen for the natural pauses that occur, and consider how changing them affects the meaning. Well-placed commas provide rhythm and cadence that mimic the spoken word. Their careful and judicious use adds distinction, flavor, and subtlety to your writing, rather like a shrimp appetizer that primes your palate for the meal to come. Remarkable how something so small can be so delicious!