Commas were the last thing I thought I'd be writing about on this blog. Surely using commas is just like breathing, isn't it? Or pausing for breath, perhaps? Apparently not.
This all started because I've been spending quite a lot of time recently looking at language blogs, and the other day I came across this mild complaint:
The writer then goes on to cite a rule for using commas when addressing people, saying that the name ought to be followed by a comma. Now as we also have the convention of ending a salutation with a comma, that would leave us with:
Lovely to read your blog ...
Firstly this looks distinctly odd to me, and secondly it breaks Will's Number One Rule for Comma Use, that a comma represents a short pause.
If I address Rachel, am I really going to pause before her name. Imagine I'm phoning her. It sounds like I've momentarily forgotten who she is. Well, I sent a comment to her blog, and forgot all about it. And then a few days later, I got an email from a different language blog, which started:
Thank you for your comment ... (or something like that)
And I thought, 'Hang on. Am I missing something here? ... "one of the many comma rules ...". How many comma rules are there? I only have about four. Have I been abusing commas all my life without knowing it?' That, by the way, was a rhetorical question, not an invitation to tear my punctuation to pieces. Something that I'm painfully aware would be only too easy. Anyway, I decided to investigate.
The advice I found on how to use commas varied from very few rules (but very sound principles), to twenty-one separate instances where commas should (or should not) be used, but no principles. The former is the excellent Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University. I looked at about a dozen other sources, which on average listed about ten or twelve rules.
I'd like to quote a little from Brians. First of all, in the introduction to his site, he makes it clear that when he talks of 'errors', he is talking about deviations from what is acceptable among educated speakers, not immutable laws written in stone. And he goes on to say:
This is very similar to our job as teachers of English as a foreign language. We are not preparing you to have an article accepted by the New Yorker Magazine, but hopefully to be able to communicate efficiently without making too much of a fool of yourself.
Back to Brians and the comma. He opens his (quite short) article like this:
Check Will's Number One Rule for Comma Use. So let's expand on this a little.
Will's Personal Rules for Comma Use
- A comma represents a short pause
- Use commas to increase clarity and reduce ambiguity
- Recognize that there are certain conventions in writing that cannot really be compared with speech
- Above all, try to sound natural
Add commas (but nothing else) where appropriate and click on 'Check'. Don't click on 'Explanation' unless you get really stuck. Keep trying till you get it right. When you do, an explanation will appear, together with my comments.
In the explanations the word 'rule' should be treated in the same way as Brians does. In other words, what is normally acceptable. Nothing more.
Click on 'Go' to start. Use the arrows to cycle through the examples.
The language we use in emails is as much verbal in character as that of traditional writing. So traditional rules for written English are not necessarily always appropriate. But for some people 'rules is rules' [sic] which must be obeyed, not violated (an ugly word). 'It says here you must use a comma ...' and so on. Now, if they want to use a comma, fine. What I object to is when they say other people are wrong not to. It's simply a matter of style. In support I will simply quote this:
- Michael Swan: Practical English Usage - many a TEFL / ESL teacher's standby.
- English Grammar 4U - Excellent German website for learners of English. Also has quizzes.
- Paul Brians at WSU - One of the best grammar websites. Washington State University
- GrammarBook - A lot of rules, but very clear and easy to understand. There is also a quiz
- BrightHub - Compiled by Heather Marie Kosur, a linguist.
- Suite 101 - A website for writers
- Wikipedia - Includes differences between UK and US use
- The Owl at Purdue - Another very well respected US university website
- Guide to grammar and style - By Jack Lynch. professor of English at Rutgers University
- Towson University, online writing support - Very detailed explanations
- HowToDoThings.com - Simple and clear