The Comma: Common Grammar Errors
Conjunction Junction - And, Or, But - School House Rock
The Comma - A Little History
The comma, that little mark related to the apostrophe in its looks, is one that causes such angst to many a writer. Whether to leave it or omit it is a gray area, even for the best of writers.
You may ask, "Who needs commas?"
Given that I've used a comma four times already in this little bit of writing may indicate that I need commas.
They're such trite little buggers, aren't they?
The comma wasn't always part of the English language. In fact, its use has only been documented for about five centuries. Monks and other esoteric types needed a way to separate text so they could read it aloud. Imagine having to read something like this to an audience:
So, you can see why literary types went on to adopt a system of marks and pauses - comprehension and knowing when a person could take a breath were important.
Things today are a little different. We have, little by little, been using punctuation less and less. We write shorter sentences, especially for the internet.
So, who's to say what's to become of the comma? Well, for now, it's still essential. I will tell you why in Mister Comma's story.
Mister Comma's Story
Mister Comma is at once tiny and ubiquitous in everyday writing. But, his job has become easier over the years.
Authors of yesteryear lived to write ornate, descriptive sentences. Charles Dickens, for example, would have page-long sentences on occasion - filled with commas, semicolons and dashes.
Mister Comma was always happy about this. He has helped to decorate sentences, painting scenes inside the reader's head with adverbial phrases and interjections, for generations. If anyone has job security, it is the comma.
Mister Comma knows his job is still secure, though. Many a sentence could not go on without him. Take, for instance, the following sentence:
She went to the store and bought cookies, chocolate, cream cakes, ice cream and candy.
Aside from such sweet pleasures as candy and cookies, Mister Comma avails himself in lists to avoid confusion.
Without the correct use of Mister Comma, something different could happen:
She went to the store and bought cookies chocolate cream cakes ice cream and candy.
I think I'd like to try the flavor "cookies chocolate cream cakes" ice cream.
Mister Comma will also tell you that he won't go in before the "and" in a list. He has other things to do anyway.
Of course, some literary types will insist that Mister Comma properly performs his job duties and that he insert himself before the last "and" in a list. It depends on the feisty-ness of the writer. Really, some circles say he should, and some say he shouldn't. He doesn't like that aspect of his job: too many conflicting points of view drive him a little crazy.
Mister Comma Loves But's, And's, Or's, Yet's, and Other Conjunctions
Mister Comma always chuckles at the word conjunctions. They always remind him of that icky eye disease conjunctivitis. He has to wonder who makes up these words? But then he thinks about the roots of English and wonders no more - so varied with Latin and Greek origins, and borrowed words from other languages.
In any case, he also has an affection for the beloved conjunction because sentences need Mister Comma.
She cried and cried, but she still wouldn't leave that job.
Jake played with his toys for hours, yet he didn't finish his homework.
Mister Comma wouldn't have it any other way.
Do You Think the Comma Will Become Obsolete?
Mister Comma's Job Description Is Extensive
Mister Comma loves these little words called interjections. They're little one-word insertions that express an emotion or a command. They may or may not carry meaning.
Stop, or I'm going to tell Mom!
Geez, why do you do that?
Mister Comma sometimes like to think of himself as quite the grammatical guru. He especially hangs out around those parenthetical phrases. He won't tell you, however, that parenthetical phrases are really parts of sentences that aren't necessary to get the point across.
I am, without a doubt, going slowly insane.
Without a doubt? Really? Did I really have to insert "without a doubt" to know that I'm going slowly insane? Mister Comma will gladly say otherwise. He'll agree, without a doubt.
Her hair, straggly and greasy, is getting long.
Mister Comma will tell you that straggly and greasy is essential for his use in the above sentence, but it makes no difference to the fact that some girl's hair is getting long. We don't have to know that her hair is straggly and greasy, unless we feel like gossiping.
Some Final Notes About Mister Comma's Job
He advises you not to be stupid. It's part of his job, you see.
Use him in logical places so that there are natural pauses in the sentence. Also use him in places where you don't want to change the meaning of the sentence.
Mason walked on his feet, a little more sore than usual.
Mister Comma wants to know something. Did you really mean what you said in the above sentence? Or did you mean:
Mason walked on, his feet a little more sore than usual.
Are we talking about Mason being sore or are we talking about Mason walking on? See? Don't be stupid. Mister Comma will not tell you when you're being ambiguous and crazy; he'll just do what you ask him to do because only you know what you're really trying to say.
Here's another example:
Parents eat free food with your children.
Mister Comma wants to know how you can enjoy food with children in it. He must insist you employ him more effectively here:
Parents, eat free food, with your children.
Yes, this was on your neighborhood church sign.
Use Mister Comma with a little wisdom and he'll be more likely to be understood, correctly, the first time.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun