Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Where Have All the Commas Gone?

It's cranky of me to kick off 2014 with a gripe, I know, but what the heck is going on with commas? They seem to be disappearing from the published word. According to the National Geographic's style manual, "the modern trend is to use fewer commas than we were taught in school."

Well, I don't like that trend. The last couple of books I read were penned by authors who appeared to have an almost complete aversion to commas. These writers didn't merely avoid using the debatable Oxford comma; they seemed to shun commas altogether.

For example, currently I'm reading a book about a major sailing race. The writer seems to be trying to conjure the effect of sailing into hurricane-force winds by her near-total omission of commas.

Here's a random sentence from the book:

The wind had built continuously with gusts now approaching forty-five knots (about fifty-two miles per hour) and the sky had grown darker.

There's nothing technically wrong with that sentence, I realize. But my reader's eye (or should that be "ear"?) was exhausted and needed to take a break before it plunged into "and the sky had grown darker."

Admittedly, as a writer, I overuse commas. (See?) I inject them into my manuscripts during the first draft stage as a stylistic device. I use them as visual indicators of where I want the reader to pause for breath. One of my final editing chores always involves going back through a draft to remove all traces of my over-exuberant fondness for  commas. (Ditto goes for my overuse of em dashes as well--I am a veritable Queen of Em Dashes. See our discussion in the Comments).

But, dang it all--as a reader, I like to see commas. I even resent writers who want to rush me through their comma-less paragraphs.

Has anyone else noticed the gradual decrease in the use of commas in popular literature? If so, are they destined to go the way of the semicolon in prose, do you think? As a writer, are you trying to use them less frequently these days? Or are you a recovering  over-user of commas, like me?

42 comments:

  1. Interesting, Kathryn. I tend to overuse commas, but I haven't really noticed a lack thereof in writing generally. Maybe it's so. I do know there are not many good grammar editors being trained anymore. Read any newspaper, print or online, and it's painfully obvious.

    In fiction, I do think the em dash is often a better setoff than commas, and definitely to be favored over the parenthesis.

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    1. I'm a huge abuser of em dashes! Somewhere along the line I started inserting them in place of commas. Then I learned I was overdoing it. Nowadays I have to do a final edit pass for both commas AND em dashes. Sigh.

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  2. Kathryn, scary as it may be, I'm like Jim Bell in that I tend to over-insert commas. When a professional editor got through with my first couple of (as yet unpublished) books, I commented that I'd like to take all the commas he removed and sell them on eBay. Apparently the pendulum goes from one extreme to the other without pausing in the middle. Thanks for sharing your frustration.

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  3. As a fellow over-inserter of commas, I sympathize! If I pause, I insert, well, you know. A comma! :)

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  4. Technically, there is a missing comma in your example sentence. Because what follows the conjunction is an independent clause, there should be a comma before the "and." I have this ingrained in my brain now because it was one of the errors my copyeditor consistently corrected, and I looked it up in CMOS.

    You all seem to be on the side of the comma-to-take-a-breath versus comma-by-the-rules controversy. I still can't decide.

    Oh, and I still use semicolons. I don't care that they're out of style; sometimes a semicolon is just the right thing to do.

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    1. I thought there was an independent clause deserving a comma there, too! But I ran it through several punctuation checkers and they didn't flag it, so I gave it a pass, lol. See, we all need actual editors, lol. Thanks for jumping in, Elise!

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    2. I should add, I would never want to try to encourage other writers to do the comma-as-breath approach; then they'd have to join a comma-abuse recovery program, and those are hard to find! ;)

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  5. I have noticed it, and I've also noticed an increase (it seems) of shorter, simple sentences, as if novels are written for sixth graders. I don't like it. I hear/read advice to do the same, but I wonder how that bit of advice sprang to life, and from whom, because I've noticed that more than a couple of writers who use commas and em dashes sell a lot of books. I just finished The Orchardist. If you haven't read it, at least take a look at some of the sentences in that story. How does James Lee Burke get his manuscript past an editor if commas are out of style? How does Alan Furst--a man who never met an em dash or comma he didn't like--make a living? Ugh. I'm glad you wrote about this topic. I thought I was the only reader out here who missed long, well-crafted sentences.

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    1. I think they're being run off by the invading armies of shorter chapters and their camp followers, who love to see more empty space on the page! Thanks for the comment, Anon!

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  6. I find commas are often necessary for meaning, and it's definitely not a good idea to make your reader have to stop and reread the sentence to get the intended meaning! Jolts them out of the story, and who wants to do that?

    Here's a disguised example from my editing:

    The group had been formed back when they were all senior students in various Ivy League schools. Respective leaders of on-campus political groups they’d joined together through necessity as...

    Here's how it should read:
    The group had been formed back when they were all senior students in various Ivy League schools. Respective leaders of on-campus political groups, they’d joined together through necessity as...

    Without the comma, in the first example it reads "groups they'd joined" which is not the intended meaning.

    Here are 11 excellent and funny examples of the mayhem that can unfold when a humble comma goes awry:

    http://usvsth3m.com/post/71961429182/if-you-think-commas-dont-matter-these-11-pictures

    And finally, I like the serial comma, too - that last one in a list before the "and". There are lots of examples of how leaving that out can create misunderstandings and bloopers.

    P.S. A good book on this subject and more: Eats Shoots and Leaves.

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    1. I was hoping you'd jump into this discussion, Jodie! Some of those examples are hilarious. And you're right about the omission of commas being distracting for the reader--in the book I'm currently reading, I almost put it aside because I got so annoyed by the writer's writing style. When I analyzed what exactly was bothering me, I realized it was the punctuation--primarily, the underuse of commas. What a ridiculous way that would have been to lose a reader!

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  7. I always wondered about commas, until i read EATS, SHOOTS, AND LEAVES. She lays out exactly what Katherine mentions: commas imply a pause; periods are a longer pause. Writers get some leeway, especially in dialog, but sentence meanings can change completely if commas are omitted opr misplaced. (See the title of her book.)

    Don't get me started on the Oxford comma; it needs to be there, or sentence meaning can easily be altered.

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    1. I'm not generally a stickler for rules in grammar and punctuation, but It's irksome when it gets in the way of the reading experience. Call me officially irked.

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  8. My sentiments exactly, Kathryn. Commas exist for a purpose, to provide clarification of one's writing. To not use them is just as much an error as using too many , or put them in the wrong places.

    If the goal of reducing punctuation is to save enough print space to shorten a book by a page or two in order to maximize profits, then shame on the publishers for buying into that nit-picky BS.

    I always do a proofread for commas. I end up deleting some, inserting some, and changing some to periods. I tend to overuse commas, so the proofread usually results in fewer commas in my work.

    All the writing "experts" have scared me to death of semicolons! I agree they serve a purpose, but I also understand that replacing them with periods is a valid solution most of the time. Sometimes the only punctuation that works is a semicolon.

    The next thing you know, modern society is going to insist we write novels in "text speak"-- Ex: How R U do n?" That's when I'll start rioting in the streets in protest. :-)

    Chris

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    1. Somehow the idea of a publisher canning commas to save money totally cracks me up. Could happen though, I guess! :)

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    2. Chris, a lot of semicolons can also be replaced by em dashes, which seem more casual and less erudite, especially for dialogue.

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    3. I like em dashes too, but fear I overuse them as well. I try to keep the ones where the sentence demands an em dash, and change the others to whatever looks and feels better.

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  9. What I see a lot, especially among those with literary pretensions, are "andelopes," or what I think of as "Cormac McCarthy Disease": "He looked at her and she looked at the gun and he looked out the window and his eyes seem to grow dreamlike and hazy and she began to cry and his head seemed to stiffen with pain but still he said nothing."

    Not sure why this is more "literary." Any thoughts?

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    1. I blame it all on Hemingway and his declaration of war against commas! Writers have been emulating his style, especially his sentence speed, ever since. Here's a good WD article about EH's style. http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/write-like-the-masters-excerpt

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    2. Jim, that example seems so choppy - doesn't flow smoothly at all. Sounds to me like a lazy writer, who can't be bothered to figure out how to make his sentences flow more fluently and naturally, with a more pleasing rhythm.

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  10. Totally agree Kathryn! I hate having to go back and re-read a paragraph or a sentence because the lack of punctuation means it's unclear. Irritates the heck out of me!

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  11. I put so much in the cadence of the written word, whether mine or someone else's. Commas and my beloved em-dashes do what we, as authors, cannot. And that is to direct the reading of our work. I learned to let go with the publication of my first novel in May (I don't write thrillers or mysteries but this is one of my favorite sites). I realized I couldn't help each reader interpret my work. I couldn't discuss the ending with everyone, or pronounce the Yiddish that was sprinkled throughout. Yet, commas show and tell the reader what I meant to say. Now, if folks disregard punctuation when they read, as many do, well—can't do anything about that. Alas.

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    1. Cadence, or what I call it --the rhythm of language--is often overlooked in its importance to the reading experience. Thanks for commenting, Amy Sue!

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  12. An that's—I put so much effort into the cadence...

    I like ellipses, too.

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    1. Amy Sue, I like ellipses sprinkled in here and there to show a trailing off or a character unsure or thinking about something. But some writers get carried away with them, putting them in everywhere, which can come across as amateurish, I think.

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  13. Jodie, I agree. I think any and all of them (parentheses, em-dashes, commas, etc.) are best when used correctly. Too many, too few, incorrect usage. All of it takes away from the writing.

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  14. Some people just don't seem to understand comma placement. The lack of commas in a story can be a distraction. I am good with commas but not as good with hyphens.

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  15. Commas are like cashews -- I can't have too many. But I notice that some copyeditor take them out. It's a trend, and I'm on the wrong side of it.

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  16. Kathryn--
    I'm absolutely with you about the passage you quote. For me, "The sky had grown darker" must be its own sentence, for two reasons: to prevent exhaustion in the reader, and, more importantly, for dramatic effect. Everything must not only make sense, but must also sound right--and that requires a good ear for punctuation.

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  17. Great topic. Thank you. Try reading aloud a paragraph without the required commas. It makes a difference.

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  18. Comma's are the best thing for narrators too. They tell us when to breath, where the writer wants a pause. They are the most useful punctuation in long sentences.

    Sometimes I'll read a long sentence that has no commas and be so winded by the end that the last few words get squeezed out on the end of a breath. I end up sounding like Minnie Mouse, right before passing out.

    Please writers, use commas wisely.

    And. Don't. Do. This. With. The. Periods.

    We. Really. Hate. Reading. This. Way.

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    1. Howdy, folks. I am taking over for Jim in Montana. He is busy shoveling all that snow that came down from you-know-where. I love all commas, except for that cereal comma. It's gotta go. But I'd really like to know is how long Basil can continuously talk with taking a breath. We could all do this and post our times. Enough with all this serious grammah stuff.

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  19. I totally overuse commas! But it's funny you mention this. I just read a book that I thought needed more commas. It became sort of a sideshow for me. Glad I'm not the only one who likes a good pause now and then :)

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    1. They help with the rhythm of reading, as you point out, Julie. I think people often overlook how important the rhythm of the wrods is to the reading experience.

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  20. I vote for more commas. They help with cadence and meaning. Give me commas or give me...well, you get the idea.

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  21. I will give up the Oxford comma when they pry is out of my cold, dead, and stiffened hands.

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    1. Me, too. I'll be one of those people with her Oxford comma hanging in the back of her pickup truck. :)

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  22. I began school in 1950. Thus, we were taught that, as you indicate, the comma served a serious purpose in clarity of one's thoughts.

    I agree with the above person that mentioned having to stop and go back in order to understand where the grist of the idea is separated from the chaff. (Now where did I put that supply of commas? I think I need a couple here... )

    As for me... I've been chided, over the years, for my excessive use of that--to them--offensive little curly-Q... and, in addition, my over-use of the... well... the uhhhh... you know... that three-little-dots thingy...

    I sign myself as the current reigning Ellipses Junky. (And if anyone is in doubt, I shall bare my good left arm, and show you my tattoo: "Maybe... Maybe not...")
    :o) The Rym (rhyme) Rytr (writer)

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  23. I admit I sometimes struggle with commas. I was born and raised in Denmark, and the Danish language requires so many commas it would make your head spin(it's my native language, but I cringe every time I see the commas in front of our word for 'that'), so constantly switching between Danish and English makes me lose track of proper comma rules in both.
    But even then, I can easily see if someone uses too many or too few commas. Both are very exhausting to read.

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  24. Hi Kathryn--
    Seems I'm a little late to the comma-fest, but I'm glad to read something on this topic. Myself, I'm probably, if anything, an over-user of commas (see?).

    I live in the UK so I'm talking about British English here but, quite aside from the debate over too few or too many, over the last 5 years or so I've noticed an increasing trend for totally unnecessary or misplaced commas in written English, such as: "Joe Sixpack, began his speech at the conference with an anecdote about ..." etc.

    From what we were taught at school, it is totally incorrect to place a comma between subject and verb! We were told that commas can be used to break up a long sentence, where someone speaking it out loud would naturally pause to take a breath (as per your example), or to break up a list ("She decided to take along an umbrella, sandwiches, notebook ..." etc).

    The comma can also be used to separate a clause from the remainder of the text, in such a way that, if you were to remove the phrase between the commas, the rest of the sentence would still make sense, for example: "Joe Bloggs, the children's author, will tomorrow be signing copies of his books at ...)

    Other errors I've noticed insidiously creeping in are e.g. "Hollywood actor, George Clooney, is appearing in ..." where the placing of the commas suggests there is only one actor in Hollywood and that is George Clooney! Alternatively, if you say, "George Clooney, Hollywood actor, will be ..." that's perfectly OK as the clause between the commas is further defining who or what George Clooney is. But the other way around is not OK. I've also seen e.g. "John Smith, chairman of the society said that nowadays people are ..." where what should be the second comma is missing.

    Whew! Maybe I should start SNIP (Society for Nitpicking over Inaccurate Punctuation), haha! By the way, this looks like a great site and I hope to return here often.
    ~Punctuation Warrior

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