Loft Life: A Pause For The Comma - Spinning Straw Into Gold Blog at - 301131

Spinning Straw Into Gold

LOFT LIFE: A pause for the comma 
Apr. 16, 2013 11:39 am 
Updated: Apr. 30, 2013 10:49 am

  I believe I suffer from comma phobia. You heard me right. I have a sincere wish to avoid the little rascals altogether. They frighten me. I think it started when I proofread school papers for my daughter, and she would get downgraded from my removal of her commas. This was then exacerbated when my best friend, Gail, a former college professor, raised her eyebrows at my journalistic use of commas, far sparser than her academic comma usage.

Let me also tell you, it is a point of honor for me that I scored 99th percentile in punctuation and grammar on my high school achievement tests. Every year. It is the only academic area where I can say that--except for my ability to recognize and name every instrument in the orchestra. But, that’s irrelevant here. I could diagram sentences with the best of them; I rarely got below A+ on any English grammar, spelling or punctuation test. 

So it rattles me that I am insecure in my use of the innocent comma. 

I think some of the confusion stems from the transition from high school and college writing to journalism, where different expectations for comma usage exist, as I have already said. But, something inside tells me it is more than that.

Lately I find myself insecurely adding commas where commas have never gone before. It’s a mixture of respect for Gail and her ilk, and fear of seeing them furrow their brows at my dearth of commas. I can almost hear the clicking tongues of the schoolteachers as they read my well-thought out commas. 

I am no longer sure whether or not my meaning is clear without them; I end up giving the comma the benefit of the doubt, then I subject myself to more pain and suffering by re-reading my text and wrestling over whether to remove many of them.

I realize I cannot have this conversation with just any Tom, Jane or Sally, but  I know you care. I implore you to consider how much anguish we writers endure for the sake of clarity versus creativity, and accuracy versus enjoyable reading. Therein is the real problem: for some, enjoyment has nothing to do with accuracy; for others it is the very rock on which they stumble when their rules are not followed, and they cannot, for the sake of incorrect grammar, allow themselves to enjoy even an artistic sentence or phrase. It’s the old chalkboard squeak or the symphonic dissonance that they just cannot bear.

Much of the dilemma has become clearer to me in the reading of Lynne Truss’s delightful book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, where she devotes an entire chapter to the worthy, small, but mighty, comma. (Truthfully, she is mostly an apostrophe kind of gal, but she does wax humorous in the comma chapter). Since the title of her book belies her disdain for misuse of the comma, I guess those little dears are important to her too. I mean, in case you haven’t figured it out, her title refers to Pandas who eat shoots and leaves. But, if the comma is erroneously inserted where it doesn’t belong, you will think the Panda has visited an eatery, had some dinner, shot the patrons, and exited. All because of a comma. Imagine!

Truss carefully explains that where the college student (or professor) might write: red, white, and blue, the journalist, me, would likely (definitely) spare you the "third degree" and write: red, white and blue. Actually, I get as frowny over Gail’s excessive use as she does my lack of. It seems to me that Gail and her colleagues simply insert commas, willy-nilly; I pride myself on deciding whether inserting that comma will better clarify the meaning of the sentence or not. If not, I restrain myself. I consider that a virtue.

The most illuminating part of Truss’s explanation is the origin of the little mark, and how it was used as much to allow the reader the proper tone, like in music, where pauses become part of the joy of reading aloud, as it was for clarity. She points out that the whole problem began when we started reading silently.

So, now, I really get it. This is the pith of the matter: I write for audio--always have. My stuff is meant for radio, bedtime sharing, reading aloud to one’s self. I think audio. Maybe that is why I need to be alone to write. I can’t have other noises around, or I don’t know what my words will sound like.

There you have it. I am giving myself permission to place commas only where they will “sound right." I will know. Hopefully, you will agree. Not sure I will persuade Gail though.


Apr. 16, 2013 12:43 pm
I am reliving the horrors of an AP English class where my teacher, Mr. Ryan, sent back everything I ever wrote with more red ink than I thought the world could produce. I can't diagram a sentence to save my life. I don't know how to use a comma. I admit to an affection for the exclamation point, but that is due to generally having nothing exciting to say or write! I have been toying with the idea of trying to find a good English Grammar text and having a go at re-learning what I never knew. It would certainly help me be more clear in my writing. I feel a certain kinship with that poor panda who ate, shot and left.
Apr. 16, 2013 1:18 pm
Ha ha Doc. I LOVE that Panda. Thanks for reading and for your erudite comment.
Apr. 16, 2013 1:19 pm
Still trying to remember how to post a picture on this blog. I am not seeing the media library I thought I had. :((
Apr. 16, 2013 2:40 pm
MyAllrecipes>>>photos>>>submit a photo?
Apr. 16, 2013 3:23 pm
"Woman without her man is nothing." "Woman, without her, man is nothing." That tiny bit of ink makes a HUGE difference. English major and teacher for a brief time. I read voraciously, and wish I had a nickle for every book I have wanted to go at with a red pencil. I would be curious to sit in on a few middle and senior high English classes just to see if what is taught has changed so dramatically.
Apr. 16, 2013 7:29 pm
Apr. 17, 2013 6:53 am
The comma debate continues to confuse people. Now, you have me wondering about the use of commas.
Apr. 17, 2013 9:03 am
Computers have conquered spell check, now we just have to wait for comma check.
Apr. 17, 2013 9:07 am
I LOVE, love, love your blog Majorie! As a former Music Teacher, voracious reader and a "gifted" talker, I think about this topic frequently. So, here and now I must confess. "Hello. My name is Candice and I am a punctuation addict!" There! I've said it. It's out there for everyone to see! I write music and short stories and am a sometimes Blogger. You are so right... just as music has cadence, so does the written word. I think my use of punctuation is an attempt to write how I speak. (I've been told to write like you speak. It may not always be grammatically correct, but definitely more interesting.)
Apr. 17, 2013 9:09 am
BTW, love what BSM wrote. The placement of commas matter! Very cute.
Apr. 17, 2013 10:43 am
thanks to you all.
Apr. 17, 2013 12:08 pm
If the current trend manifested in texting continues, any punctuation, capitalization and complete words will be relegated to the bin of wasted things once thought proper. Thee are those, on this site, that have written blogs using the texting style. Maybe it's the techy thing to do but for me, it is difficult to make sense of and I seldom read them.
Apr. 17, 2013 12:15 pm
Mike I so do agree and also mourn the loss of real language usage, where thought and care are important.
Apr. 19, 2013 1:12 pm
I am known as the resident "Grammar Geek" at my work, and teach a day-long back to basics grammer, punctuation and writing workshop. It is incredible to me that so many people managed to get through school and yet, the written word scares them silly. To me "Eat, Shoots, and Leaves" is a classic and actually, a very fun read.
Apr. 20, 2013 11:22 pm
I share the same affliction lol! I did well in English in high school but when I got to college another story. I never seem to put them where needed instead they are in places not needed. I had a very intense professor who loved her red mark pen so after a few weeks of class I had to just be myself. I put commas between every single word in a 5000 word paper. I received the paper back with a B and the only red marks on it were on the top saying "Your luck your a good student wise a**' =)) In a world where you can be anything..........just be yourself commas will find a way!
Apr. 21, 2013 8:36 am
In high school, nor in grade school, do I remember learning about what a "run-on sentence" is, and how to fix it with a "FANBOY". This is an acronym for the conjunctive words for-and-nor-but-or-yet. The way to fix a run-on sentence is with a coma, and one of these words. It's a simple rule, and once I learned of it in college, I was saved many points on my writing assignments! The rule is to use a coma, and a conjunction when joining two sentences. Here is an example of a run-on sentence: I never liked fish as a child but now I do. Here is the same sentence corrected: I never liked fish as a child, but now I do. I was also taught to rarely use a FANBOY to start a sentence unless it is for dramatic effect. Hope this helps!
Apr. 21, 2013 9:04 am
P.S. I just found a fabulous handout on commas at the University of North Carolina's website! It explains ALL the rules on comma usage! It's great!
Apr. 22, 2013 12:16 pm
Ladybuggs, your story is hilarious. Thanks again to ALL of you who read, enjoy, comment and repost.
Apr. 22, 2013 12:18 pm
OH and I too LOVE what BSM wrote. Just the sort of punctuation "nut" I can relate to.
Apr. 23, 2013 2:55 pm
Very interesting. And here's the link to the site Nattygirl mentioned:
Apr. 26, 2013 8:11 am
ty Peggy
Apr. 30, 2013 10:49 am
I, on the other hand, use an excessive amount of the little buggers! And, the same is true, with the dreaded exclamation mark!!
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As a freelancer, I write about food, travel, entertainment and health. Publishing began as business/health writer for Orange County Business Journal, drama critic for Orange County Register, LA Times, and Irvine World News, and food critic for Orange County Register's 13 city papers. I follow hubby around the country, so next destination in IL/WI was freelancing for Stateline Business and Rock River Times (my Lunch with Marjorie column is still online there). Now in CT, I write about life in New England, travel, continue Lunch with Marjorie, and have other ventures happening. I have consolidated all my writings at Click on MENU for the growing list. Please leave comments! Thank you so much for reading. Marjorie
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