What strikes you about the following passages?
Source: Herald Sun (Melbourne)
Source: MX (Melbourne’s free commuter newspaper)
Source: Bookshop catalogue
Creativity, thoughtfulness and thinking skills are freed when you’re forced to read a full book cover to cover. All the keys to your future success, lay in the past experience of others. Make sure to read a book a month (fiction or non-fiction) and your career will blossom.
Source: an article on http://www.forbes.com
A colleague of mine once said, ‘I put commas in where I would take a breath.’
As it happened, her breathing and my idea of sentence flow were incompatible. Breathing and rhythm are certainly aspects of punctuation, but you may not always need to breathe where a comma is required.
Commas are there to add structure to a written communication. In the pictured examples, errant commas do more to interrupt the reader’s flow than to aid comprehension. We do not need a comma to understand the first clause in the pictured Harry Potter example: ‘Advance copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince are about to hit the 600,000 mark at amazon.com, while the novel’s US publisher, Scholastic, announced a record first print-run of 10.8 million.’
Likewise, there is no place for a comma in this sentence: ‘All the keys to your future success lay in the past experience of others.’
An important comma convention is co-ordinating commas, which are used to mark off a phrase or sub-clause. These paired commas are used to incorporate information that is not vital to the main idea being communicated but which is not so incidental that you would use brackets. In this way, commas allow you to add detail without upsetting logical sentence structure.
- The novel’s US publisher, Scholastic, announced a record first print-run of 10.8 million.
The use of commas in this sentence confirms that there is only one US publisher for the novel, because the word ‘Scholastic’ is only an aside. The sentence is not dependent on the word ‘Scholastic’: you could delete that word and the sentence would still make sense.
When you separate information from the main sentence flow using commas, brackets or dashes, readers know that this information is additional or subsidiary.
- My sister, Helen, lives in Townsville.
- My sister Helen lives in Townsville.
In example 2, the use of commas tells us that you have only one sister (the word ‘Helen’ is independent information). In contrast, the absence of commas in example 3 makes it clear that you are referring specifically to your sister Helen rather than another sister.
In the pictured example advertising Fifty People who stuffed up Australia, the writer ought to have chosen one of the following:
- Journalist and social commentator Guy Rundell has selected a cross-section of fifty Australians from across the history of white settlement…
- A journalist and social commentator, Guy Rundell has selected a cross-section of fifty Australians from across the history of white settlement…
Example 4 uses no commas and is perfectly readable. Example 5 uses a comma to mark off an introductory phrase. If you moved that phrase into the sentence, the rule of paired commas would apply:
- Guy Rundell, a journalist and social commentator, has selected a cross-section of fifty Australians from across the history of white settlement…
And for those who argue that punctuation is not important, I give you this Dear John letter:
(Author unknown. Image source: Grammarly.com)
Feature image source (‘A woman…’): laurarandazzo.com (https://laurarandazzo.com/2014/06/08/the-power-of-punctuation/)
The original version of this article was published as ‘Frustrations of an English Pedant’ in The Australian Writer issue 381 (September–November 2013).