In today’s written word environment, one readily gets the impression that grammar—and especially punctuation, its mechanical component—seems destined for oblivion. Even with the trend toward brief communications, boundless opportunities arise for criminal assaults on the objective of clarity in expression. And possibly the most frequent victim of abuse is the comma. There seems to be an ongoing acceptance (most of the time) as to where a period belongs. But when it comes to placing a comma, anything goes. For instance, check out a yard sign that offered “Dog,s for Sale.” Is a plural of the noun intended or could it be that a comma is replacing an apostrophe, If so, then a word relating to dog is missing and I hesitate to contemplate the options.
Possibly the most arguable circumstance involves what is known as the “serial comma,” or the use of a comma in a series of related words. Should it be “black, brown, and yellow” or “black, brown and yellow”? Self-appointed grammar police will insist that the comma is necessary so as to define the phrase as containing three separate colors. Without it being present—they claim–-a reader could assume that there are just two colors, one being black and the other a brownish yellow. “Picky, picky” retorts the opposition. There’s no confusion because if the second color were a blend, why then you’d use a hyphen. But that procedure introduces yet another punctuation mark—the hyphen—and who would ever want to complicate the issue all the more? The best approach may be to just do whichever you want and go on with your life.
Still another trap comes with what could be termed the “expository addition.” Loosely, it refers to the insertion of a phrase or clause that qualifies or identifies or simply adds information to an otherwise complete sentence. As an example: “John Smith, a protagonist also called Ralph, is a major role.” Using commas to set off the explanatory note is considered standard style. Suppose you are uncertain. Simple solution is to take another approach—use parentheses. Now you have “John Smith (a protagonist also called Ralph) is a major role.” It’s the coward’s way out.
And let’s not forget the simple direct object vs. a command attached to the recipient of that command. A comma makes all the difference. Really? The following pair of identical word commands do not mean the same when one has a comma and the other omits it:. “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and “Let’s eat Grandma!” In the second instance, we encounter a child with a most peculiar culinary preference. Moral of the story—disregard commas at your own peril.
All in all, the mysteries of the comma are not mysterious at all. We seem to be caught in a trap of our own making. There is some notice of a growing condition for having too many or too few commas within the contents of a page or even a paragraph. Some writers tend to sprinkle them profusely throughout their text. Perhaps it’s a sense of it being better to have more to spare than to not have enough. However, either choice is wrong. Even in this day of hyper-technology, sorry to say, there is no formula or algorhythm to advise how many commas per chunk of words you need. Tough, but the old-fashioned way of doing it manually “by the book” is really worth a try.
- Richard Eastline
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