Let Us Pause a Moment

There’s a lot of leeway in using a comma correctly. Why? Because commas are used to provide the reader an idea of where a pause should happen in a sentence, and different people pause in different ways when speaking. What’s this? Speaking? But we’re talking about writing! True, but if you’re not sounding out your writing, you’re not taking one of your jobs as writer seriously. You must hear your words. It’s the only way to judge how well the sentence holds together in the readers’ minds, and where your commas should go. First, take a look at a sentence without commas:

Landry grabbed the pills from Carla dashing them upon the floor where they broke apart shouting at her raving about the dangers of addiction.

Landry stopped Carla from dashing pills on the floor? The pills shouted at Carla after they broke apart? Did the pills rave at Carla or did Landry? Without some form of punctuation, all the clauses in the sentence become fair game to connect to any other clause. And the reader can end up coming to some odd conclusions about what is going on. While overuse of commas can lead to a sentence being slowed down unnecessarily, underuse/lack of use can obscure the meaning of the sentence altogether.

Landry grabbed the pills from Carla, dashing them upon the floor where they broke apart, shouting at her, raving about the dangers of addiction.

With the first comma we set up the independent clause (a set of words that contains a complete thought). “Landry grabbed the pills from Carla” can stand on its own as a sentence, which is why it’s called an independent clause. Note that in the first sentence, “Carla dashing them to the floor” is one way of reading that section of the sentence. The reader looks for clauses and tries to connect them in a way that makes sense. But that’s just not always possible. That’s where you the writer needs to have shown them how you want them to digest each clause—each chunk of information. You don’t want to suggest Carla dashed the pills to the floor. In fact, that’s the opposite of what happens. Putting the first comma after the first clause separates it from the clause following, which clarifies that Landry grabbed the pills from her and dashed them to the floor.

Another place where lack of a comma confuses things is “where they broke apart shouting at her.” Without a comma, pills can shout! Not what we want the reader to think.

“On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”

-Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynn Truss)

A sentence, overfilled with commas, however well-intentioned, slows, often too much, the reader, who, wanting to read, not pause, gets frustrated. (See what I did there?) But a sentence without punctuation is as difficult to read correctly. Minimize your comma use, but sprinkle in where appropriate.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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  1. I like that one. The kids in a Composition 100 class I worked with cracked up when I wrote “Let’s eat Grandma!” on the board. When I added a comma after “eat” there was a sort of collective “Ohh, I get it” reaction from everyone. It’s hard to find a clearer example of how important a comma can be to a sentence.

  2. Another great post, John. Reminds me of a cartoon I saw the other day, Mother Goose & Grimm. Three characters are standing alongside each other and one of them says, “Let’s eat Attila.” Attila, who is among the group, inserts a comma up into the speech bubble to make it read, “Let’s eat, Attila.” Attila’s next speech bubble reads, “Commas save lives.” : )