By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor
All too often people take a perfectly good idea and then use it for all sorts of occasions for which it doesn’t apply. One example is having a right lane for slow drivers and a left one for fast drivers. This works well—most of the time—on the highway. But then drivers in the city try to run you off the road if you want to turn left into the local shopping mall. But I digress. Today, I am thinking of the comma.
Commas are extremely useful but, to my mind, they are the most singularly misunderstood punctuation mark. People leave commas out when they are supposed to be there and use them when they are not needed.
First let’s imagine that we are walking along a path, trudging along with one foot in front of the other. You are not likely to stop with one foot up in the air and the other supporting your full weight. Yet, we do this to the comma all the time.
I was born in San Francisco, California in the late 1950s.
The comma after San Francisco is your right foot doing its bit to advance your journey forward. But then the left foot—the comma that should be after California—just hangs there in midair.
Now, let’s imagine that we are looking at the proverbial apples and oranges and that we are weighing them on an imaginary scale. We have something (apples) on one side of the scale and another (oranges) on the other. They are in balance. The word “and” is the pole that keeps them in balance. But, possibly from a misguided sense of drama, people keep wanting to add a comma before “and” and other conjunctions.
The Rover scraped the Martian soil in a search for evidence of water, and of life.
Sure, adding the comma forces the reader to stop briefly and does give added weight to the end of the sentence. But this can be done with dashes or with another short sentence just as well, without offending the grammar gods.
The Rover scraped the Martian soil in a search for evidence of water—and of life.
The Rover scraped the Martian soil in a search for evidence of water. It also searched for life itself, hoping to find the remains of some ancient civilization in the red dust.
Well, maybe that went overboard with the drama! But you get the idea.
We give fiction writers poetic license to use the comma for suspense and to heighten excitement by pausing with a comma. Here is an example from Bram Stoker’s Dracula:
He saw my hesitation, and spoke, “The logic is simple, and no madman’s logic this time.”
That comma before “and spoke” is not needed but, to advance the tension in such a story, we allow the rules to be thrown by the wayside.
So, remember these two rules of thumb: use a comma when splicing together two complete sentences to make one (two subjects and two verbs) and use one in place of repeating “and” in a list (apples and oranges and bananas equals apples, oranges, and bananas). Otherwise, let some other type of punctuation have a turn or use none at all.
As for me, I will use plenty of commas—when needed—and stay in the left lane when turning left no matter how often you honk at me.