If you’re a writer, what are the most important things you need to think about? Spelling, grammar, and punctuation. (And, you know, imagination and creativity. Those are intangibles that someone can’t get taught, though) Your odds of success go down dramatically if you can’t manage those three things. Of course, in this era where you have Grammarly available, it’s not an excuse to turn in work riddled with such errors. But I digress. Because even electronic grammar machines aren’t flawless, and they’ll fail you from time to time. That means you have to dredge up that elementary and middle school knowledge (or break out your Strunk and White: Elements of Style). Sounds easy enough. So why do I stumble across posts, articles, and even stories that read like scripts from the William Shatner era of Star Trek?
You find, commas, in all, the wrong, places!
Delving into a refresher course on commas would lead to an encyclopedic post. If you recall your lessons, you know there are different situations for them to make an appearance. You have rules for dialogue, structure for various clauses, and the all-important Oxford comma debate. (Don’t worry – there’s plenty of time for me to get into all of those situations down the road) What drives me up the wall, though, is when I’m reading through something and finding myself stuttering through sentences because someone dropped a bag of commas into the sentences. That’s what we’ll confine this post to: the OVERUSE of that tiny little mark of punctuation.
First, though, let’s review the official (basic) definition of a comma:
“A punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. Also used to separate items in a list.”~Oxford Languages
That word PAUSE is the key to using commas in your writing. You’re providing your reader with a chance to catch their breath. It’s not an excuse to write run-on sentences (that’s a different topic entirely), but it DOES allow you to craft complex thoughts. If you need an example, pick up any of Victor Hugo’s novels. The man’s thoughts can easily cover a couple of pages before you hit the end of the sentence. But because you have appropriate pauses to breathe and collect the concepts he wanted to present, you don’t think anything of it. So you get a thorough history of the Cathedral de Notre-Dame or a lecture about the French Civil War embedded into the plot of the novel, and you never bat an eye. He uses commas appropriately.
Then you come across other works that make you feel like you’re hyperventilating. If they happen to be horror or mysteries? It can work. The author’s creating the same tension and panic in the reader that the character’s feeling. But since I don’t read either of those genres (not often, anyway), those aren’t the pieces I find myself wincing over. Nope, I’m finding blogs, articles, even the occasional short story or novel that look like the Comma Fairy dumped her entire quota out on the page. The marks show up EVERYWHERE! And I have to wonder if the editor fell asleep, missed that chapter, or didn’t comprehend the definition of a comma in the first place. Reading is like trying to watch the Tin Man run (or, you know, imagining that as I’m not sure he ever actually runs in The Wizard of Oz). And trying to read the page aloud? It makes me sound like Captain Kirk.
Which is an easy way to PREVENT the problem.
The best way to edit your work is to read it aloud. Skimming something on a screen? There’s too much risk of your eyes bouncing over an error. And your brain likes to automatically correct things – even if they’re WRONG. (This is why you’re better off letting someone else edit your work, of course, but I recognize that isn’t always an option) When you start reading out loud, though, you find yourself catching more mistakes. And the start and stutter speech of an abundance of commas? That stands out right away. (Incidentally, so will a LACK of commas as you fall out of your chair, running out of breath) Suddenly, you expect to see Spock walk through the door or hear Scotty complain about a lack of power. (Okay, those are major clichés. I’m not a Star Trek fan, so I’m limited on my ability to crack jokes)
And while you’d think Grammarly would pitch in and help you weed out all of the unnecessary marks, the program bails on you. I’ve even watched the window suggest EXTRA commas to me! (As I’ve mentioned before, we have a love-hate relationship where I spend at least half my time arguing with a computer screen) Blindly accepting everything a grammar program tells you is probably where these comma explosions come from. But it makes you look like you’ve never cracked open a book in your life (or that you opened the WRONG books). And, for readers, it makes attempting to get through your work a challenge.
Take the time out to read your work – OUT LOUD. If you have a significant other or children around and don’t want them to know what you’re writing? (I get it, there are uncomfortable topics and weird scenes we write) Close the door. Or print it out and find a quiet corner outside. (No one needs their neighbor calling the police because you’re mumbling about burying a body in the middle of the forest, three miles from the lake) But find a way to speak your sentences where you can hear them so you can make sure you’re not overdoing the commas. You want pauses that make sense. They should allow you to speak in a normal conversational manner. Do you feel like you’re speaking in your usual tone? Or do you think you’re auditioning for a Captain Kirk look-a-like contest?
Is this the tip of the comma iceberg? More like a single snowflake. But it felt like a good place to start. Commas represent a pause within a sentence. And if you can get past that part of the grammar, you’re already ahead of…well, you’re ahead of a lot of the work I’ve been editing recently. And the more we thin out the comma invasion, the better the written world will turn out in the end. (Don’t worry – we’ll chip away at that iceberg eventually)