Monday, July 07, 2014

Commas: An Enigma Wrapped Up In Phrases, Clauses and Parenthetical Expressions

This post is the direct result of a brief and furious discussion of the vicissitudes of proper punctuation on one of my writer's group. I fastened on the great comma conundrum: "Do you put a comma before the final "or", "and" or "but" in a series. As you probably noticed, I do not.

Commas are tough. I used APA style in grad school, AP style in my journalism work and Chicago Style in ghost-writing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the "no comma before and/or/but" habit.  I do not feel comfortable writing a series of nouns, verbs, adjectives and phrases with a final comma before the final "and" in the series. It just doesn't look right to write "ifs, ands, or buts." It makes more sense for the commas to replace an implied conjunction. If you have the conjunction, why do you need the comma? And yes. I know about the great "mac and cheese" paradox.

The rationale, in using a comma between all words in a series, is to simplify (i.e. dumb down) the rules of grammar. Unfortunately, for me, as a practicing poet, punctuation is too important a part of my poetic arsenal for me to give up perfectly good punctuational tricks because some people have weak verbal skills.
I don't dumb down mathematical symbols to make it simpler for me to do calculus. I just don't do calculus. I ask the same courtesy from the mathematical community.

Commas, especially, tell the reader where I want them to pause to take a breath.  In the last sentence, I didn't want the reader to pause at "where", although a case can be made for placing a comma there. Commas tend to separate ideas into more or less discreet linguistic packages. What I wanted to do, was connect "tell the reader" and "where I want them to pause" as a single thought in the reader's mind. In normal speech, I wouldn't pause there, as I just did after I wrote "In normal speech".  See what I mean.

Writing should reflect our speech patterns and punctuation helps do that.
For a while they were teaching us that that the comma before the "and" was unnecessary. It is, especially if you are a good writer and in firm control of your writing. 

As I said, there is the macaroni and cheese conundrum, against which, the dumbed down version of the commas-in-a-series rule was deployed to prevent.  If I said something like, "We're going to have potato salad, beans, macaroni and cheese," then, things get confusing, especially if you have never heard of mac and cheese and don't know that mac and cheese is a single dish.  Duh!

If I redistributed the words and wrote that, "We're going to have potato salad, beans, and macaroni and cheese it doesn't look much better, but the mathematical analyst with an ironclad rule might just be able to suss it out. I do use a comma, however, when connecting two clauses with unequal weight, as I did in the last sentence where "but the mathematical analyst" didn't feel like it had the same "weight"  as the main thesis of my sentence. But, I digress.

Instead of throwing a comma in to rigidly mark out the elements of a confusing "mac & cheese" series, the competent writer simply rearranges the list as necessary to make it easy for the reader to comprehend.
The writer, with full command of language, simply creates a multi-faceted menu like this: "pork and beans, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, peas and carrots, pot roast and apple pie". No confusion there except, of course, whether the period goes inside the quotation marks or outside.

The rigid mathematical grammarian always places the period inside the quotes. If I am using quotes to set off a word for "emphasis", then I put the comma outside the quotes; thoroughly infuriating my grammatical betters.

I won't even start on semi-colons, whose very name sounds like a digestive ailment.

The word processor is a gift from God to the professional writer.
It allows us to fix what we write, in any way that we like, without penalty.  There may have been some excuse in the old typewriter days, when you had to retype the whole page if you wanted to rearrange things in a list or move commas around. With the modern word processor, you have absolutely no excuse for not taking firm command of the written page.

The final comma—the one between the word "and" and the preceding word—is often called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. In newspaper writing, you will seldom find a serial comma, but that is not necessarily a sign that it should be omitted in academic prose. As far as I'm concerned, academics are welcome to dumb down their grammar, if they wish, in the interest of not confusing each other. I have noticed that people with Ph.D.'s tend to be easily confused. I suppose that's why they need to have iron grammatical rules in order to submit more or less intelligible papers to "noted scientific journals". 

I find iron grammatical rules to impose a rather less than human quality to one's writing. Like the rule about complete sentences.

My personal rule of thumb is to insert the appropriate punctuation mark wherever it feels like one belongs. Especially, as a would-be fiction author, I think about what kind of cues the guy, who reads the audiobook version of my book, needs in order to make the narration sound real and not wooden.

I find that people, whose reading sounds wooden, hate nebulous grammar rules. I believe they need them because they don't understand how to emote when they are reading someone else's writing. Unfortunately, such folks don't make good audiobook readers in any case and in many cases make their own writing sound wooden when they read it.

So, in the end, I write as I wish, punctuate deliberately and leave the more egregious of my errors to my editor to fuss over. After all, what else does he get paid for?

Just sayin'.

Tom King
*Excerpt from © 2014 by Tom King