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.”