[Originally published April 4, 2013.]
1. If nothing else, one ought to know how to treat a comma. Abandonment or abuse of the comma muddles discourse, and this lack of respect is akin to neglect, to a lack of appreciation, to an unreasonable rejection of the very foundation of all worthy human interactions.
2. Even in its more seemingly prosaic applications, appearing to be little more than punctilio, the comma possesses great power. Consider, for the moment, the salutation of a written letter.
That graceful comma is more than ornamentation, more, too, than mere formality. The great missives of history have all begun in such a fashion. But in addition to its magnificent legacy in the history of letter writing, the comma gives us pause to build our anticipation or steel ourselves in preparation. It may tempt us, tickling the foot of that final letter, or it may attempt to hold us back, to warn us before we tumble and fall upon the following line. A comma used thus implies the letter was written with care, with a sensitivity towards its awaiting audience.
3. The comma suffuses language with nuance and delightfully detailed insights, and, by joining together sentences and subjects, it creates unity. For example:
I said give me another chance, and she said nothing, refused to look.
You’re the only one for me, and the only one I’ll ever need.
With the aid of the comma, statements are united, points of view are broadened, and the complexities of reality are more accurately rendered. Here, on the other hand, are examples of less elegant sentences:
You’re just too difficult to love.
I’ve met someone else.
These sentences are direct, and yet their meaning is obscured. One must note, of course, the glaring absence of commas, the failure to elaborate, and the disregard for how complicated things might really be. Without commas, one rushes headlong into dangerous declarations and the verisimilitude of reality. Such bare sentences neglect language, neglect the possibilities yet available to us. There is more to say, another story waiting to emerge should one only insert a comma and offer it a chance to explain.
4. Commas, in coordination with a conjunction, are also essential when making comparisons and contradictions. For instance:
“I’d call you cold hearted, but you’re clearly heartless,” Benjamin said.
“You might call yourself an academic, but you’re the only one who cares what you think,” she said.
5. The comma can also be deployed to separate, organize, and distinguish objects in a list. Consider the list below:
You left behind your box set of Marlon Brando DVDs, ungraded papers, running shoes, and that preposterous Slap Chop you bought from the TV.
Similarly, a comma is needed for the following series of actions:
She had everything waiting on the kitchen counter (clearly she hoped to dispatch me quickly), but with a wave of my arm I knocked it all to the floor, then seized the Slap Chop, held its spring-assisted blades against my chest, and claimed I’d Slap-Chop my heart to pieces if she hadn’t already left it minced.
6. In written dialogue, commas are part of the mechanics and structure of speech.
“Please,” I said.
7. Commas are also necessary for the repetition of words, for when insistence and sentiments of great import are required:
“Please,” I said again. “Please, please, please don’t do this.”
8. It simply cannot be said too often that punctuation, not just the noble comma, is crucial to communication and comprehension. Truly, a poorly constructed sentence can set worlds crumbling, can alter perceptions irreparably. For example, consider how punctuation affects the following sentences:
“I love Tom.”
“I love, Tom.”
In the latter sentence, the speaker does not mistakenly profess her love for Tom but simply, innocently declares her capacity to experience love. The comma then, is directing her statement to someone named “Tom,” someone who might be waiting in the other room, someone who (impossibly) “just doesn’t want things to get out of hand.”
9. A note on apostrophes: while commas can both provide clarity and allow a sentence to build, to continue, perhaps, indefinitely, the apostrophe is most often used in a frivolous—but not always indolent—manner. Witness the following:
“What’s so great about Tom?”
“Tom has a proper job with a proper salary, he doesn’t waste time ‘adjuncting’ and claiming to be a scholar, doesn’t spend his weekends reading the OED, doesn’t judge people for wanting to see a new movie at a regular theater with normal people, and he doesn’t correct my grammar in bed—it’s dirty-talk you dumb fuck.”
Although the latter example has an arguably excessive use of commas, it does also illustrate the usefulness of an apostrophe in forming contractions—albeit perhaps a bit too much, and one gets the point quite quickly. However, there is another, rather more garish use of the apostrophe: that of possession.
“I want to hear you say it,” she said. “So there’ll be no equivocations, no way that you can call me in the middle of the night claiming something or other about the signified versus the signifier. Repeat after me: ‘Anne is Tom’s girlfriend now.’”
When used in this manner, the apostrophe is clearly stomach-turning. My colleagues might argue that the apostrophe is a perfectly normal, even useful, if not vital punctuation mark. But I say that if language adapts with the times, then it is representative of society, and that if our need for awarding possession is so great as to warrant such a tawdry and sickening punctuation mark, then the apostrophe is indicative of precisely what is wrong with our society: our inability to communicate effectively, to build relationships, to share and support the goals of others—even when those goals mean working temporarily but yet quite hard in a less glamorous position as one pursues a more respectable appointment among his true colleagues.
10. Dear Benjamin,
I return you to this salutation. See how that comma hangs there? See how it embraces the end of the name? See how its usage does indeed suggest that care has been taken, thought given? This specific use of the comma, one that accompanies a carefully chosen salutation (in this case “Dear” meaning loved one, one who is close to the heart), should clearly be taken as a sign of glad-tidings, and also as a reason to pause, to take a breath of expectation before proceeding to the following line.
Please stop calling, or coming over.
The foregoing: a flagrantly misused comma that renders the sentence incomprehensible.
Stop evoking destiny, astrology and true love.
Here the absence of the endangered Oxford comma muddles meaning. It is unclear whether the speaker understands that these are separate ideals and concepts, not an elaboration or definition of destiny, suggesting perhaps that she is unaware of her own true destiny.
It’s over, I’m through.
The egregious misuses of grammar here suggest the writer is either completely divorced from the reality language represents, or that the sentence is incomplete. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that the sentence above is missing a clause, and the visible, errant comma is a vestige of a now absent sentiment. In other words, perhaps the sentence originally looked something like this:
It’s over, this tasteless behavior of mine as well as the cruel game I’ve been playing in which I pretend to no longer love you, I’m through.
There is hope in a comma.
I mean it, Benjamin. Don’t contact me again.
Two utterly pathetic sentences, not one proper clause between them, nothing dependent, just me. Sentences that deploy commas correctly could be endless, like love, boundless, bringing one closer to an idea, or a person, so close and for so long that one could somehow begin to understand the infinite, could stretch on into perpetuity, onwards towards forever, which is itself a word that has lost meaning when so many, many, many times it is uttered alongside other now meaningless words like “love,” as in, “I’ll love you forever, and ever, and ever.”
11. Just as commas accompany a salutation, they also follow valedictions at the end of a letter. Note the commas that attend the traditional and heartfelt valedictions that follow: “love,” “yours,” “faithfully,” “forgive me.” Note, too, the aberrant and brute concision of: