Tuesday, September 18, 2012

On the, comma (or Don't Tell Me When To Breathe)

Oh, the comma, that bane of punctuation. But, first, a story:

A woman, a blond, if you must know, needed to have her hair done. She called around to find out if there was anywhere that would do her hair while she was wearing headphones. Finally, after calling a dozen or so places, she found one, and she went in. However, the hair stylist was surprised to find the woman wearing  actual headphones rather than earbuds, which is what she had expected. Who still wore actual headphones?

She said to the woman, "I can't do your hair while you're wearing those."

"You said on the phone that you could."

"Yes, but I thought you meant earbuds."

"What's an earbud?"

The hair stylist just blinked at the blond woman with the headphones on. They stared at each other for several awkward moments until the stylist said, "Look, can't you just take those off long enough for me to do your hair?"

The blond woman became instantly irate, "No! I can never take them off! Never!"

They stared at each other some more.

Finally, the blond said, "Can't you just work around them?"

Shrugging, the stylist said, "I can try."

The blond took her seat in the chair, and the hair stylist went to work. But it was more difficult than she thought it would be, and the piece of metal going across the woman's head was in the way, and the large pads on the woman's ears were in the way, and the stylist kept wondering what could be so important that the woman needed to leave the headphones on for. When she'd had about as much "working around them" as she could take, and the blond woman looked rather like she'd dozed off, the stylist thought, "Surely, I can move them just for a moment to get this last bit and put them back on before the woman even knows I've moved them." So she pulled the headphones back from the woman's ears.

Immediately, the woman began gasping and clawing at her throat and she fell to the floor and resembled nothing more than a fish that had been spilled from a fish bowl.

In a panic, the stylist called 9-1-1, and the ambulance came, but it was too late, and the blond woman was dead. The ambulance took the woman away after asking many questions about what had happened. The police came and asked more questions about what had happened, then they went away, too. After everyone was gone and just the poor hair stylist was left alone, she saw the headphones lying on the floor up under the chair where they had been forgotten by everyone. She picked them up, finding that they were still attached to the old fashioned walkman with an actual cassette tape in it.

Overcome by curiosity, she put the headphones on and pressed the "play" button. This is what she heard:
"Breathe in... Breathe out... Breathe in... Breathe out... Breathe in..."

At this point, you might be wondering what that has to do with commas, and you'd probably be correct to wonder that, but it does relate, so just give me a moment. (Mostly, though, I just think it's funny.)

Commas! Why are commas so difficult? Really, why are they? There's one fundamental reason that they've become such a difficult piece of punctuation to figure out. People are confused by what they do and what they're for. Those are two completely separate things, but, because they do this one thing, people have come to think that's also what they're for when it's not at all what they're for. What they do is merely a byproduct of what they're for.

Have I confused everyone yet?

Before I go on, let's talk about what a comma does, because this is what causes all the problems, especially the problem that I hate so much, the comma after the conjunction. See, what a comma does is to tell people where to pause in their reading. Or, as everyone likes to call it, where to take a breath (as if people mostly read out loud, when, in truth, people hardly ever read out loud). What happens, then, is that writers start throwing in commas where they would pause if they were saying their sentences out loud. This leads to commas in places where they don't belong as in the sentence, "But, he went home." That sentence shouldn't have any comma, but, for some reason, people want there to be a pause there, so they throw that comma in to indicate the pause.

So here's the thing: don't tell me when to breathe! No, really, don't do it. For one thing, the vast, VAST majority of my reading happens in my head, so I don't need any help with breathing when I'm doing that. For another thing, I, um, know how to breathe. Really, I don't need your help, and, if I did, I'd probably have a larger problem than what a comma could fix.

Also, don't try to tell me how to read. If your writing is good enough, you don't need to tell me how to read your sentences, the sentences will lead me in the reading. So don't try to tell me how I should go about reading the sentences you write. If I can't figure it out, there's either something wrong with my reading ability (and there's not) or you need to work on your writing some more. Or you're just being totally anal about the whole thing and want people to only read the same way you do, and that's just not okay.

And that takes us to what a comma is for. A comma is meant to convey meaning. As it is with adverbs, the comma is to provide clarity, or, in the words of wikipedia: "...the comma is used where ambiguity might otherwise arise..." See, this has nothing to do with telling the reader where s/he should take a breath. That kind of advice is just for music and swimming as far as I know (because, well, it's not good when you take a breath when your face is in the water).

Now, I'm not going to go through all the specific uses of the comma, because, frankly, there are just too many, and most of you are probably loosely acquainted with them, anyway. And some of them are optional and use the word "may" (as in "you may use a comma with a long prepositional phrase"), and that can lead to all sorts of confusion, because how do you know when you should or not? What I will say is this: if your comma doesn't add to the meaning of the sentence, you probably don't need it. By that I mean, if there could be confusion without the comma, you should have one. Unless you need a semicolon instead, but that's another issue, and I'm not going into that, right now (just know that almost all of you (and I don't mean you you, I mean people you, because people hardly even know what that little guy is called anymore) out there need to learn how to use the semicolon. He is your friend and should not be so overlooked).

However, I will mention one comma usage rule that everyone should go learn, because this is the most common error I see. Yes, even more than that stinking comma after a conjunction, and I think this is the one that causes that particular confusion anyway. Adverbial phrases should always be set apart by commas. Um, did I say always? Because I mean always. If you've written your sentence, which contains an adverbial phrase, correctly, you can pull that phrase (or dependent clause) right out of the sentence and still have a sentence remaining. It shouldn't mean the same thing without the phrase (because, if it does, you don't need that phrase to begin with), but you should have an intact sentence (you know, with a subject and a predicate (a verb)) remaining. This is the important thing, so pay attention:
Adverbial phrases, without the commas to set them apart from the rest of your sentence, can easily become entangled in your sentences and cause confusion. That's why adverbial phrases need a comma on both sides.
[One other note: there are some adverbs that always require commas, but it's really because they act as adverbial phrases all by themselves. You should learn these words. There really aren't that many of them.]

Here are some examples of correct ways of punctuating adverbial phrases:

  • <adverbial phrase>,<independent clause>, <conjunction> <independent clause>. OR <adverbial phrase>, <independent clause> <conjunction> <dependent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <adverbial phrase>, <conjunction> <dependent or independent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <conjunction>, <adverbial phrase>, <independent clause>. OR <independent clause> <conjunction>, <adverbial phrase>, <dependent clause>.
  • <independent clause>, <conjunction> <independent clause>, <adverbial phrase> OR <independent clause> <conjunction> <dependent clause>, <adverbial phrase>.
As you can see, I could go on with those for... well, quite a while. But that should give you an idea of the basics. Of course, you have to know the difference between an independent and a dependent clause, which I'll have to talk about at some point, but, really, that's a basic thing, and, if you don't know, you should go back and chastise every English teacher you ever had for not drilling that into your head. Or flog yourself for not paying enough attention in class.

It all looks and seems so much more complicated than it actually is; that's all I can really say about it. But, if you look at the above sentence structures, you may be able to see what causes these common mistakes:
<independent clause>, <conjunction> <adverbial phrase>, <some clause or other> -- The conjunction is NOT part of the adverbial phrase, so there NEEDS to be a comma between the conjunction and the phrase so that the phrase can be "lifted out."
<independent clause> <conjunction>, <some clause or other> -- This one is just wrong. That comma ALWAYS comes after the independent clause and you shouldn't have one after the conjunction unless there is an adverbial phrase (or a long prepositional phrase). [If you have a word like "however," there should be a semicolon involved, but we're not getting into that, right now.]

But let's make it even easier, because easier is better, right? Do this:
Write without any commas. After you've finished your section or whatever or waited a few days, gotten some distance from what you've written, or, even better, get someone else, go back and read through it and look for places where the writing is confusing. If it's confusing, there's a good chance you need a comma. Or commas. Look for places where the comma dispels ambiguity, not places where you want your reader to breathe.

As one final note, I will say this:
The Internet and texting are in the process of changing comma rules once again. We use them less, mostly, because we write shorter, less complex sentences. Personally, I use more commas than I specifically need to when I write, because I tend to put them in everywhere they're "supposed" to go. You know, by following all of the comma rules. However, I would say that the only real rule you need to know is "Commas are for meaning not for breathing." If you get that down, you should be okay. If the comma doesn't add to the clarity of the sentence, take it out. If not having one causes confusion, put one in. And watch your adverbial phrases, because they run into your clauses and cause confusion. You might know what you mean, but there's a good chance your reader will get confused.
In the end, too many commas are better than not enough as far as meaning goes, so, if you're not sure, put that comma in there. As long as you're not telling me to breathe!


  1. I got flogged a lot in English class, and I was much too busy at the nurses office to learn a fraction of this. I don't use nearly as many commas as you did in this impressive example of basic English punctuation.

    Funny, funny story, by the way. Weirdly enough, I don't like being told when to breathe, either.

  2. My name is Anne. I'm a blonde who misuses commas. Now where's the coffee machine (question mark).

    Like a lot of people, I overuse the comma. Truly, I'm horrid at grammar, dreadful. It seems like a simple thing, but it's not and I always get it wrong.

    Now the way I took the story was that the blonde was so dumb someone had to tell her to breath or she'd die. My sisters and I collect blonde jokes because we like to laugh at ourselves!

  3. Great post. When we write as adults we often have to unlearn the things they taught us in school and start taking out those adverbs, adjectives, and commas that are so unnecessary.

    [And yes, I'm an oxford comma user :)]

  4. Why thank you. I have found that the rules of grammar are either things I know intuitively, or are half muddled things I recall from English class (or things I've deduced from reading alone - which could be dangerous I suppose). It can cause problems.

    For meaning, not for breathing. Got it. We'll see how that translates into things I write.

  5. Well they tell you to eliminate adverbs anyway so you really shouldn't have any adverbial phrases.

    I still wear those old-type headphones though that's because the ones I have are noise-cancelling ones I wear when I go out so I don't have to hear as much background noise. They do get uncomfortable after a few hours I tell you whut.

    Ha ha not a single comma!!!

  6. I can admit that my comma use isn't perfect. It's something I try to improve, but like Rusty, most of it I just learned from half-assed English classes or deduced from reading. Also, old habits die hard, which doesn't make it easy when I'm writing and want to put a comma in a certain space (or don't want to put one there).

  7. I almost started a revolution when the Oxford people declared the serial comma unnecessary before the "and". They'll have to pry that particular comma out of my cold, dead hands.

  8. Perhaps I will have a comma carved out of wood and send it to you as a present. Then you can place it wherever you wish and find zen :)

  9. Debra: Well, if you were being flogged, no wonder you had to see the nurse!

    Anne: Um... coffee machine? We have a coffee machine? >wanders away to look<
    Oh! and, yes, you got it.

    Laurita: Thanks for stopping in!
    "Unlearn what you have learned."

    Rusty: Adverbial phrases are good. They make for more complex and interesting sentences. They're not the equivalent of adverbs.

    There is a movement, a small one, to eliminate comma usage entirely.

    ABftS: Mine's not either. Like I said, I tend to put in more than people like, so I have to go back and pull them out. I'm thinking about trying out not putting in any commas in a first draft to see how that changes things.

    L.G.: I don't think it was the Oxford people that said that; they're the ones that say to use it. I'm pretty sure, anyway.
    We learned the optional way when I was a kid, but I've always used it.

    Michael: Well, based on comments you've made about commas elsewhere, I think you have a grudge against them. I haven't read your book, yet, so I can't really comment on your usage even if other people have.

  10. Just a note Andrew - you were probably responding to PT above instead of me. I hope so anyway, otherwise, um, well, okay.

  11. Rusty: Bah! Yeah, I was. I must have had some kind of glitch. grr...
    Okay, here's your response:
    Theoretically, reading should be the best way to learn to write, including how to use grammar and punctuation. What gets to me is that people used to be so much better at complicated grammar and sentence structures, but we've allowed all of that to pass away.

  12. Very skillfully presented. The story is well told with plenty of good comma examples incorporated into it. I guess I'll start erring on the side of too many commas, which is something I have probably been doing anyway.

    Tossing It Out

  13. Meaning not breathing - check.
    I usually add more commas during editing. When I'm not taking them out to make two short sentences that is.

  14. Lee: Thank you very much, good Sir.

    Alex: Oh! Don't do that! We don't need more short sentences!

  15. Great tips Andrew. Commas always confuse me.

  16. Maurice: I think that's their secret mission. In fact, I think they're after me, now, for exposing what they're really for. I have to go hide!

  17. I'm a chronic comma (and probably semi-colon) over-user. ;-p

  18. Shannon: But how do you judge that? If you compare your writing to something written 100 years ago, I bet you don't stack up. :P
    I think it's easier to take them out than put them in. No, wait... Maybe it's the other way around?

  19. I really like this post, Andrew. (Although I was actually wondering how the woman managed to use the telephone if she was wearing headphones in order to breathe.)

    I think about commas a LOT. I mean, it's sort of ridiculous. Sometimes in early drafts or on blog posts I'll make mistakes with them, but usually I do it right. HOWEVER none of my teachers actually taught clauses....well, that's not true either. They were taught, but it wasn't explained why it was important. So these sorts of things are things people tended to learn for just long enough to pass the quiz, then dump from your brain because you didn't see the point of knowing what an adjectival prepositional clause was, really. (OK yes I made that up.) Sadly, now I can see the value and can see that I've been coasting for years due to having an "ear" for sentence structure, but I can't necessarily construct sentences well. Ugh I am going to have to go read some grammar primers.

  20. Callie: Good point about the telephone, but she could have just slid one ear covering back to be on the phone. I had to fudge the joke a bit as the first time I heard it, there were no such things as earbuds and the kids I work with have virtually no idea what a headphone is, so I figured it needed updating.

    When I was 5th/6th grade, we did some pretty extensive grammar with diagramming and all sorts of stuff, but, then, I was in special classes for all of that stuff. The one thing that really helped me with is identifying clauses and phrases (which are almost the same thing and sometimes are the same thing), and that gave me a really strong basis for grammar all the way through school, including college. I wouldn't say I'm an expert, because I still have to look stuff up all the time, but I'm pretty good.

    I'm glad you like the post :)

  21. I totally should have read this post before I posted about commas this week. Apparently I'm spot on guilty of what you've said here. You summed the issue far better than I did, so my hat is off to you, Andrew. :)

  22. David: Do I get to keep the hat? What kind of hat is it? I like hats...

    Just got back from reading your post, and, you know, other than the breathing thing, it's good! And it's good that people are talking about their comma issues.