C Is for Comma

As noted in “A Is for Audience,” I started this A-to-Z challenge a little late. C should have been posted on the 4th, but it’s currently the 6th. I’m backdating this post to the 4th to make myself look good. I will catch up, I promise.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5, “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

Is it a comma, or is it an apostrophe? Without more context, like maybe a baseline, it’s hard to tell.

Commas drive many writers and editors crazy, mostly because they are convinced that there are places where commas must always be used and places where commas must never be used, and the rules that specify which places are which are both inscrutable and shifty, which is to say they swap places in the night just to mess with people’s heads.

Commas are useful little buggers. Writing that consists of long comma-less sentences is devilish hard to read, and besides, we usually talk in phrases, emphasizing some words and not others. Commas, and punctuation generally, help shape your sentences so they’ll be read, understood, and heard the way you want them to be.

Yes, it’s usually a good idea to put a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses:

She dashed down the stairs and into the street, but the car was already disappearing around the corner.

But when the clauses are short, a comma might feel like overkill:

Michaela went into the garden and Joan left the party.

But a comma wouldn’t be wrong in the sentence just above, nor would it be wrong to omit it in “She dashed down the stairs . . .” Much depends on how the writer hears the sentence, and how she wants readers to hear it. A comma does suggest, or at least permit, a pause.

Not all writers hear the words we write, but some of us definitely do. When I’m editing and come to a comma in an unconventional place, or an absence where convention thinks a comma should be, I read the sentence aloud with and without the comma. Do the two versions feel different? If so, which works better in context?

Commas are small but powerful. Don’t be afraid of them. Put them to work.

For more of my thoughts on commas, check out “Dot Comma.” And if you have any questions or advice about commas, let me know.