A Piece of Advice: Commas

Commas are a pain.  Many people learn to use them through rule-based teaching.  Unfortunately (in this case), adolescents tend to resist rules and to take exceptions as opportunities to cast doubt on the whole process.  A significant shift in perspective occurs when the young writer realizes the connection between the reading experience and the writing experience.  That realization requires several conditions to be in place: the writer’s confrontation with the physical and metaphysical reality of the reader, and the writer understanding that something beyond a grade is at stake (this is no longer “performance” or “practice”).

When those conditions are in place, the writer is ready to begin writing from her reader’s perspective.  That means always thinking about how the probable reader will react to each element of the construction.  How might the reader understand this thought, this word, this piece of punctuation?  The probable reader becomes an active interpreter of the rules.  Exceptions are understood to be necessary–useful in limiting meaning.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of why the “comma plus conjunction” rule exists:

I went to the store to buy bread and milk was on sale.

I have seen countless examples of this problem.  The countless examples were in college student writing (mostly first-year students).  Many of the writers who produced this type of confusion also demonstrated, in other places, that they knew the rule.  The errors tended to occur in places where the ideas being expressed were relatively simple (un-complex).  Such a situation suggests that when the writers were forced to pay attention to their constructions, they punctuated more effectively.  Punctuating effectively means reducing as much as possible the number of possible meanings any given expression can have.  Indeed, that can serve as a definition of “good writing” in general.  In the above example, as I read linearly, I read “milk” as an object of the action “buy.”  However, when I move to the next word, I am forced to read “milk” as a subject for the verb “was.”  At this point, I stop reading and become irritated.  Perhaps irrationally, I continue to be irritated at the writer long after I’ve made sense out of the sentence.  If I signal the reader that “milk” is only a subject, then all is good:

I went to the store to buy bread, and milk was on sale.

Then we have the exception:

I went to the store to buy bread and I ran into Joe.

This is pretty much the same grammatical structure.  The only difference is the use of “I” as the subject to the second clause.  The word “I” is the ultimate subject.  It will never be confused for an object.  The comma in the following sentence, then, is unnecessary:

I went to the store to buy bread, and I ran into Joe.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.  The comma does provide some separation, some isolation, for each of the ideas within the sentence.  If that isolation is desired, then the comma should be used.

Mastery of the language is not achieved through chapter-and-verse knowledge of the rules.  Rather, mastery is achieved when the writer thinks through the effect of each word and punctuation choice, customizing the delivery so that confusion is minimized and intended information is maximized.

And how do you know the probable reader?  Get feedback on your writing.  Schedule an appointment with the Writing Center.

PS: I find it chortlesome that immediately below this wordpress post editing window, there is a link to “Request Feedback.”


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