Death by Commas

Posted: January 27th, 2014, 1:50 pm   By: brittany.corners

Commas are insidious. They sneak into some writers work with little thought. Some writers pepper commas throughout sentences in some random pattern known only to them. What they don’t realize is that commas are a bad thing when too many are used. Overusing commas creates a slow, painful death to the coherent thought and readability of any written piece.

Many writers mistakenly believe that anywhere a pause is used when something is spoken out loud requires the use of a comma. However, this often results in far too many commas. Readers of the material are likely to grow frustrated, think a writer has some seriously poor writing skills or find themselves lost in the jilted, interrupted and unclear phrases. These over-users of commas even have a special name reserved for their comma insanity – “Comma Crazies” or “Comma Sprinklers.”

There is a key difference in comma usage: commas indicate a pause, but they should not tell readers they must take a breath and pause.

A pause creates a break in thought, a shift. Sometimes a shift is necessary to create clarity. In many cases where these Comma Crazies feel obligated to drop one (or five) commas haphazardly into sentences, the thought is so broken that not even the most intuitive reader can make sense of it.

Proper and coherent comma use:

The Saturday Night Live Chippendale skit, featuring Patrick Swayze, and Chris Farley, is hilariously, funny.

Same sentence after an attack of the Comma Crazies:

The Saturday Night Live, Chippendale skit, featuring Patrick Swayze, and Chris Farley, is hilariously, funny.

Isn’t a slow, amusing death from laughter more fun than the slow, painful death of the hacked-up second sentence?

To give these overzealous writers a little credit, comma rules are often a bit confusing. For example, introductory elements usually require an offsetting comma, but sometimes they do not (huh?). In fact, some grammar guides say something like “there are six basic rules for commas,” but then the last rule is a catchall category with 30 different rules.

This makes it clear that correct comma use might prove taxing to writers who are not well-versed in the rules. Is there a solution? Yes! These writers must learn to act as the comma police, to wear the badge proudly in order to eradicate the errant use of unnecessary commas.

As part of the grammar police, writers should understand when to use commas and when to squash them into nonexistence.

Commas are often required in when the following situations appear in writing:

  1. Introductory elements
  2. Independent sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction
  3. Lists of three or more (serial comma)
  4. Nonessential elements
  5. Coordinate adjectives
  6. Free modifiers
  7. Pauses or shifts
  8. Contrasted coordinate elements
  9. Direct addresses
  10. Locations, dates and titles

In addition, commas are used to create clarity when none of the above rules apply. Yep, it’s still a little confusing, but writers who learn the rules that give them the most trouble can end the premature and unnecessary death of their prose caused by misplaced commas.