Monday, April 4, 2011

The well-placed comma

Long before I became a newspaperman, I read one of the worst paragraphs in the history of journalism. It was one sentence; 10 picas wide and upwards of 100 words. It had some semicolons, a dash or two and a bunch of commas. I don't know what the writer was thinking, but he could easy have gotten four of five sentences out of it.

Maybe six or seven sentences.

In fact, that sentence/paragraph/monstrosity was probably one reason I became a journalist; journalism had nowhere to go but up from there.

So that brings us to punctuation. I like short sentences, so I don't need a ton of commas. But sometimes they're necessary.

I've seen editors almost come to blows over a comma, and I've had at least one argument over commas. My last boss told me all of my commas were wrong, and I told him it was a difference of opinion. We argued over some of the comma placements, scowled at each over and went on. The next day, he asked my opinion on a comma, and I told him he was on his own. I wasn't going to start it again.

I probably use more commas than some editors, fewer than others. To me, a comma is meant to slow the reader for a fraction of a second, let her know that there's a change in direction or we're in the middle of a list. If I use an introductory word, clause or phrase, I like to put a comma in there. Otherwise, the reader has to work a little harder; and I don't want the reader to work, if possible.

In the world of academia, you'd say that I joined my wife, my sister-in-law, and a college professor for lunch at the local diner. In the newspaper biz, we'd say that I joined my wife, my sister-in-law and the college professor for lunch. As an acquaintance of mine points out, the style in journalism stemmed from the time when type was set by hand and every space was precious. Now, you still don't see the comma there. It's habit.

I like to use a comma to break up a compound-complex sentence, especially when the reader would be confused without it. I don't like it when people put commas in places where they're not necessary.

And I don't mind an occasional run-on sentence, as long as the writer gets the comma in the right place.

That last scowl-down over commas, though, has gotten me thinking. I probably use fewer commas than I did before. With commas, less can be more.

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1 comment:

  1. Fascinating things, commas. Years ago when I was studying linguistics at university there was a tale going the rounds to the effect that some post-grad was doing research on the topic, 'Jane Austen's use of the comma.' It was told as one of those stories that provoke a laugh at the daft things that some academics get up to.
    Much more recently my son wrote a dissertation for his MA on Samuel Crompton's use of punctuation with special reference to the full stop. I was very interested to discover what an intriguing wealth of social history that opened up.
    He did try to track down that Jane Austen thesis, but without success. So was the story a spoof, or was the thesis never finished and submitted? Wish I knew.