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How to Use a Comma
William Strunk, Jr., was the quintessential English professor. E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and many other works of poetry and fiction, was Professor Strunk’s student. Together they wrote the best-ever guide for grammar and punctuation: by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White. “The Elements of Style”
In “The Elements of Style”, Strunk and White discuss, among many other things, the comma. Actually they discuss it eight times. The instances of comma use (and misuse) they cite are:
- with abbreviations
- in compound sentences
- before conjunctions
- with dates
- with parenthetical expressions
- with quotations
- serial commas
- the comma vs. the period
Consulting Strunk and White in all these instances will effectively help eliminate comma abuse and promote proper comma use. You might well ask, why did I bother to write about commas if all I am going to do is cite Strunk and White? Well, bucko, I’ll tell you. I have more to say on the subject.
One rule of thumb provided by my Professional Writing professor at Northeastern University was: “When in doubt, leave it out.” Notice that I included a comma. If I wrote, “When in doubt leave it out,” would you understand it? Yes, I think you would. However, the pause generated by the comma after “doubt” better approximates what I hear in my mind when I think the phrase.
I suggest that one place a comma belongs is where you want the reader to pause. As Strunk and White point out (although they don’t put it quite this way) the pause is sometimes necessary to prevent misunderstanding. Take as an example the following sentence:
“My friend drew, from memory, charcoal drawings.”
“My friend drew from memory charcoal drawings.”
The second sentence is much less understandable. In the beginning we think that the friend is drawing from images he remembers, then at the end we are puzzled by the possible existence of “memory charcoal drawings.” What on Earth is a ‘memory charcoal drawing.’ A drawing of memory? A drawing by memory?
So we see that the comma is sometimes vital to meaning. Yet, if we, use it too much, we find, that as we, read, it is a stop, and go, affair. Reading is a supposed to flow smoothly therefore writing must flow smoothly.
I submit that the real trick of using the comma correctly is to leave it out except when it is vital to the meaning of the sentence or when a pause is otherwise desirable. I invite those more learned to disagree.