Wit and wisdom for wordsmiths

An idiot’s guide to commas – and why a good one should make you smile!

3323816 bf875a44f0 An idiots guide to commas   and why a good one should make you smile!






At last. The Big Spenders have stopped writing checks, The People have spoken, the East Coast is picking itself up after Hurricane Sandy, and we can all get back to writing.

Today we’re going to talk about those little grains of grammar called commas and periods.

Stop! You’re reaching for the delete key?

You think you won’t lose your job or land that juicy assignment if you can’t punctuate?

Well, consider the magazine cover header that read, “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Makes you  wonder what happened to that editor — not to mention the dog.

Or think of the telegram that meant to say “Not getting any better. Come at once,” but instead read “Not getting any. Better come at once.”

“My parents, Ayn Rand and God”

Sci-fi writer Teresa Nielsen Hayden invented an apocryphal book dedication that read: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”  to show that without a comma after Rand, it looks like Rand had sex with God. Not likely, since Rand was an atheist.

I have a client who despairs because her PR staffers use commas either like table salt or like cayenne pepper – liberally or in all the wrong places. These are bright people who handle most parts of their jobs well; they just have a tiny block when it comes to punctuation.

The result is that the manager spends a couple hours of her day editing their work before it goes out the door – and fuming.

Put commas where you’d pause?

How do we decide where to put the commas, anyway?

The conventional wisdom is to put them wherever you’d pause, and although there are other places to use commas, that one has a basis in history.  An early version of the comma was invented to help ancient Greek actors deliver their lines.

Why? Because long after oral language was written down, words were copied letter for letter, with  no punctuation, capitalization or even spacing between them.  Which made it hard for the actors to read the plays.

(Imagine that last sentence as “whichmadeithardfortheactorstoreadtheplays” )

But around 200 B.C. by Aristophanes of Bysantium developed a system of dots telling actors when to breathe as they delivered their  lines.

Medieval European monks, probably tired of wondering how to make sense of the Scripture they copied, made more changes in the system of little marks.

But it was the printing press that brought punctuation into common use. If books were to be read by ordinary people, they had to be written in a form that made them understandable – which meant they needed punctuation.

The stroke, the colon, and the period

For a while, printers used the stroke (/) to set off word groups, the colon ( : ) to set off distinct pauses, and the period (.) to end sentences.

Eventually the comma replace the stroke, and the semicolon snuck into use to confound writers ever since.

What about the period — or as the Brits call it, the full stop?

English teachers used to command that unless periods were found at the end of a string of words containing a subject and a verb, they were incorrect. Verboten. As welcome as bedbugs.

To fragment or not to fragment?

Inflexible of them, considering that we’ve been communicating in fragments since cave men used grunts.

The Bible used fragments. So did Dickens.

The trick is to know what you want them to do: end a thought or add punch?

How do you learn how to use punctuation so you won’t look like a dummy or drive your boss crazy?

There are a bazillion grammar guides, most of them too boring for (sorry) words.

Some fun (really!) grammar guides

But some aren’t.  One is Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl: Quick and dirty tips for better writing, which covers not only grammar but usage.   Fogarty has a tip-a-day blog that makes absorbing the rules painless.

Fogarty has a companion book, a podcast, and even apps for smart phones.

Also  online, there’s the University of North Carolina’s “The Writing Center,”    that helpfully tells you how to use “connecting words” called “fanboys” – For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet and So – so you can avoid writing clunkers like, “My hamster loved to play, I gave him a hula hoop.”

In the bookstore and on Kindle there’s Lynn Truss’s famous “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” which by now has sold 3 million copies. Try reading that and not laughing.

There’s “Spunk & Bite,” an irreverent updating of the hoary Strunk and White.  Subtitled “A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style,” it covers commas, periods and all manner of other matters to make your writing sing.

Author Arthur Plotnik says he has one special gift: He sees dead writing.

What else can you do?

Find someone whose writing you admire and read closely to see how s/he does it. Even better, copy a chunk of it word for word (including punctuation) to see how it’s put together.

Finally, find a good editor to give your writing a spit shine.  Full disclosure: I do that. 

Have any badly punctuated howlers to share? Tell us in the comments below!

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