Mama Don’t Take My Commas ‘N Throw ‘Em Away+

Anyone who has to write something grammatically decent does his/her share of complaining about the inconsistencies of American English sentence structure. There really aren’t huge changes being made. I think that’s why it’s so annoying. If we all had to learn a new form of punctuation—say the ‘ellipsicolon’—we’d learn it quickly and become pros at…doing whatever the ellipsicolon was invented to do.* Instead, a group of somebodies gets together, rehashes the old arguments, and comes to the decision to omit a comma or put one back.

I’ve been comparing the commentaries of a fifth edition (1986) Norton Anthology of English Literature (Volume 1) and a Norton Anthology of English Literature–Victorian Period (2006). (I like doing this because I’m a nerd.) One difference I found was the comma usage.

Three books in my Norton collection. (The Plain English Handbook by Walsh (c)1936 actually inspired this post, so I had to include it.)

Let’s just admit it: commas have succumbed to relativism. There’s no absolute truth about commas. Use them as you will, and let no one judge the placement of your comma. Every list of comma rules includes the handy little, “Use commas when it alleviates confusion.” That does not alleviate my confusion about where to use commas; it merely gives license to all manner of comma debate.

Norton’s 2006 Anthology of English Literature forces me to reread sentences in an attempt to find where the pauses should be because there seems to be a general consensus among today’s Norton literati not to waste commas on things like introductory prepositional phrases. But don’t worry, the comma was saved, since it was needed before the last element in a series. (Previously, that comma had lost popularity and been discarded.) I realize now how much I depend on commas, and how often I take a lengthy prepositional phrase for granted at the beginning of a sentence. I wish to apologize to commas for my lackadaisical attitude toward them in the past and discuss four types of commas that deserve notable mention:

1. The Oxford Comma

“Please do not put glass, plastic, or tires into the fire.”

See that little comma after plastic? Beautiful, isn’t it? I think so. I was taught the Oxford comma, or serial comma, was a necessary component for good sentence structure. A short wave of anti-Oxford comma sentiment followed, and now the comma has returned. Yes, I still mutter under my breath about that snooty ‘professor emeritus’ who persuaded the rest of them it was right to denude our sentences of old Oxford.

2. The Introductory Modifier Comma

“Underneath that rich mound of soil, three small seeds are learning to grow.”

Long, long ago, in a world of grammarians far, far away, the rule for introducing a sentence using a prepositional phrase stated that a comma would separate the phrase from the main idea. Now it is a matter of judgement whether the comma after ‘soil’ is necessary, and the prepositional phrase that is less than five words in length doesn’t need a comma at all. Without that comma(,?) there’s always the possibility that a reader will lose the main idea in the sentence.

3. The Lyrical Comma

Gradually they got nearer and nearer, and Mr. Bhaer came up to watch the boy; for, as if he was in his element now, his cheeks reddened, and his thin fingers flew, as he hugged the old fiddle and made it speak to all their hearts the language that he loved.

This is an excerpt from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men. Reading this sentence is like hearing the rhythm of Nat’s music. It is effortless because the commas guide you. They are there to build the emotion; yet, some would argue the sentence verges on run-on. If that’s the case, Alcott crafted her stories from run-on sentences. Here’s another:

4. The Supporting Comma

Demi called her a ‘Betty,’ but was very glad to have her keep his things in order, lend him her nimble fingers in all sorts of work, and help him with his lessons, for they kept abreast there, and had no thought of rivalry.

This second excerpt illustrates that rule about using commas to alleviate confusion. A good comma separates ideas in a sentence so they can all live together happily without frustrating the reader who is looking for the object a descriptive phrase is modifying. See what loving, supportive deeds these commas undertake in this sentence?

There’s nothing wrong with any of the commas above. They are perfectly well-situated commas. They aren’t hurting anyone. They are there to make the meaning clearer. But they often get discarded, rejected, wronged by modish grammarians. I’m sure it’s a comma conspiracy!

So, how do I deal with the comma kafuffle? I watch for comma habits. Does this writer use the Oxford comma? “Ah, I like him/her,” purrs the comma snob in me.

*As far as I know, there aren’t any ellipsicolons yet.
+This post title is based on lyrics in a Paul Simon song from the early 1970s, “Mama Don’t Take My Kodacrome Away.” From what I’ve read, nobody ever caught what he was saying. So, if we apply the philosophy of relativism on this song title, like we do with commas, the majority rules in favor of the song title “Mama Don’t Take My Clothes ‘N Throw ‘Em Away.”

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Author: Rilla Z

I'm a scribbler. I'm genuine. Sometimes I'm too genuine. My topics of interest are: this world, the worlds inside my head, and the world to come. Oh, and cups of tea. Yes, I write about my cups of tea.

10 thoughts on “Mama Don’t Take My Commas ‘N Throw ‘Em Away+”

  1. No one is taking away my Oxford comma! I am definitely comma obsessed, although I like to think I (usually) put them where they’re supposed to be, with the exception perhaps of when I am very tired and I look at my manuscript the next day, and can tell where my thoughts broke because I put in dozens of extraneous commas where they really shouldn’t be. When I discard them, everything seems wrong. I suppose those who distain commas may leave them out as they like; the general rule of thumb professionally is supposedly consistency throughout manuscripts and letters, but I suppose some editors might be biased one way or the other. This post came at the right time for me. I’ve been fretting about commas a lot lately as everyone seems to have a different opinion, and I’d started believing that I’d somehow forgotten everything I learned in school. I’m all for the evolution of language within reason, but I need to know how it’s done, and it needs to make sense. On a side note, spell check told me on my previous comment that I was spelling miniscule incorrectly, and when, baffled, I looked it up, I found I was using a lesser used, if still correct spelling. So there, spell check and comma haters!

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  2. I have gotten very lazy about using commas when writing emails lately, but your well-thought-out, not to mention well-written rules have inspired me. If grammar textbooks had writers like you, more students would understand the message contained therein.

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  3. I’m an Oxford comma girl. 🙂 I admit I don’t use them after short introductory clauses and follow the guide of five words before using one in that situation. But if a sentence can be misinterpreted without one, I’m putting it in!

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  4. I’m having a hard time parting with my commas after an introductory clause, even if it is less than five words. It just looks wrong to me to leave it out. And I definitely like the Oxford comma. 🙂

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    1. Yeah, my finger hovers over the comma key every time. My problem is consistency. Sometimes I’m in a rebellious mood and include the comma; then I try to be peaceable again and leave it out. It’s terrible for my comma reputation.

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      1. Ha ha–I was just thinking the same thing today as I was editing my manuscript–that I’m not consistent with the comma thing. Sometimes I’m bolder than other times. I’m glad I’m not the only one who spends precious minutes thinking of such things. 🙂

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  5. I love commas, and I cannot imagine a sentence without a comma where one should have been used! Sometimes, I get too fond of commas and I overuse them, but it is better than discarding them, right? 🙂

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