Punctuation can be a fickle thing. There are rules which must be followed at all times (a sentence must always end with a puncutation mark) and then there are rules which are never enforced (like the proper use of a semicolon), or even those rules which are used variably depending on the effect the author wishes to create.
The idea of using puncutation to create an effect in your work seems at odds with what we know of punctuation in general. We are taught since elementary school that there are hard and fast rules to punctuation. We are told punctuation serves a singular purpose. Besides the choice of period or exclamation point, the use of punctuation is not subject to artistic stylizations or interpretations. Sadly, as we grow older, many of us do not realize that this is simply not the case.
Like all rules, knowing the basics of punctuation is necessary before tampering with them. The comma is perhaps the most widely used form of punctuation as well as the least subject to strict rules of use. In The New Oxford Guide to Writing, the comma is “least reducible to rule and most subject to variation, depending on the need to be clear or emphatic, the preferences of individual writers, and even fashion.” Who would have thought the use of a comma could be fashionable?
On the path towards become more mindful readers and writers, we must be able to identify the significance of comma use. When an author is writing, not every comma is used with a goal other than function. It is when the comma is used in an unusual way that we must pay particular attention to it.
When is a comma used stylistically rather than functionally?
- When there are many commas used in a paragraph or sentence. This does not mean that the use of these commas are breaking the standard rules of use. They are simply unusual in their frequency.
- A lack of commas is similarly notable. Commas are the most frequent form of punctuation so a long stretch without them is probably done purposefully.
- When use of commas produces a rhthym in the writing that is similar to poetry.
- Commas which are used opposed to the standard rules are always notable but not always obvious.
- Commas which are used to pair off objects, clauses or ideas. This creates parallelism. Think of the greatest example of this tool “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
When you come across a stylistic use of commas a good reader will pause to consider it. Being a mindful reader requires that you pay close attention to all of the author’s choices, even things as small as a comma. Consider:
- In what ways did the author use this comma that is different from usual?
- What effect does that have on the ideas being conveyed?
- How does it impact the flow of the work?
- How would the effect change if the comma were used more conventionally?
- Are commas being used to convey similarity? (because commas create a distinction between like parts of speech such as clauses or nouns, the use of commas in parallelism often suggests a similarity between typically unlike things.)
Of course there is much, much more to consider when using commas. This is a brief introduction to the conscious practice of analyzing commas in your reading and your own writing. For a more thorough understanding of commas I would suggest reading The New Oxford Guide to Writing, The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style. Some great websites to check out are Copywriting Tips, The Writer’s Toolbox, and The Editing Hart. I also enjoyed Writing/English Rules take on the Oxford Comma. It’s been up for debate for so long but she offers a great understanding of how the use of this comma changes our understanding of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods.”
Mindful reading is a process that takes time. Practice what you have learned here by identifying the impact comma usage has on the following examples. Share your thoughts in the comments.
At intervals my mother’s voice was heard,Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on,All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring,Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.
– Anna Laetitia Barbuauld, “Washing Day”
- “Then I’ll wait until things calm down, And then, I don’t know, I’ll think of something, You could resolve the matter right now, How, You could phone her parents …”- Jose Saramago
- “My God the cigar what would your mother say if she found a blister on her mantel just in time too look here Quentin we’re about to do something we’ll both regret I like you liked you as soon as I saw you I says he must be …” -William Faulkner
- This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England… -William Shakespeare, Richard II