Since I’ve been going on over the comma for the past week or so, I suppose it’s time to draw back and get down to foundations. What purpose does the comma serve? She seems so insignificant and so picky – so anal-retentive. Consider:
The purpose of the comma is to serve as a modest symbol of the structure of the thought expressed, thus of perception and its relation to reality.
Do not imagine that “modest” has inserted herself for ornamental purposes. She is of the essence of the meaning of a comma. The comma, like the phonogram, is modest. It is iconic. It does not desire you to gaze on her, as we are now. She is embarrassed by this attention and has told me so in no uncertain terms threating in fact to leave my blog entirely if I continue to talk about her so much. So I have promised her that I will discuss her only when fitting expression of the idea (her beloved) requires it.
It is important that we note this modesty, because, for the most part, conventional thought disregards the modest, having been conditioned and trained to note what appeals to the senses and to neglect the things that appeal to the intellect.
You can see that preference played out both in the neglect of grammar/punctuation and in the neglect of phonics. Both should be attended to only long enough to enable us not to notice them anymore. If we do not attend to them early, we will attend to them unduly late.
So we must allow the comma her modesty, but not to deprive her of her role.
And that role, remember, is to articulate the structure of the thought expressed. She does not do it alone, nor would she want to, but she plays an essential role.
She enables us to coordinate independent clauses, elements in a series, adjectives that modify the same noun equally, contrasted elements, introductory elements, and absolute phrases. onessential elements.
She allows us to set off nonrestrictive phrases or claues, parenthetical ideas, vocatives, and words in apposition.
She helps us to identify direct quotations, to give honor due by separating names and titles, to clarify dates and addresses, to mark salutations and closings, and to distinguish hundreds from thousands, hundred thousands from millions, hundred millions from billions, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Sometimes she simply helps prevent misreading by indicating omissions and separating repeated words.
She does not shoulder the power of a period or a colon, but how very gracefully she does her work, if only we allow her to do so.
Let me conclude my rhapsody to the comma by quoting from the McGraw-Hill Handbook Of English that I mentioned the other day:
This mark of punctuation, more than any other, helps to clarify the meaning of writing. But its overuse and misuse also obscure meaning more than the misapplication of any of the other marks.
Here are three important facts about the comma that you should keep in mind:
- It is a relatively weak mark compared to the period, semi-colon, and colon.
- It is always used within a sentence.
- It has three primary purposes: (a) to separate sentence elements that might be misread; (b) to enclose or set off constructions within a sentence that act as interrupters; (c) to set off certain introductory sentence elements.
Let us praise her modesty, but let us not neglect her or abuse on account of her virtue.
One last thought. If you are well-acquainted with the comma and do not teach writing, you have probably long ago forgotten exactly why you use the comma the way you do.
I write this, not to distress people who seek to honor the comma and use her rightly, but to enable us to someday live in a world where all but the technicians have forgotten why they use the comma as they do, yet all use her rightly; a world where every child holds up his thesis before the whole human race and proudly acknowledges that he has fulfilled his debt to language and to mankind, that he has structured his thoughts coherently and fittingly and, if called upon to defend his actions, can venerate the holy comma for the truth she has pointed him to.