Punctuation: Comma

The second in an occasional series in which Dr Gapper examines a punctuation mark in the vain hope that he will stop sticking it everywhere in his writing.  This time the comma.  Or should I say, ‘This time, the comma’?  To be honest, I don’t know.  That’s why I am bringing this up.

James Thurber and the editor of the New Yorker are said to have had fights over commas for many years.   JT (the original JT) hated them so much that he would apparently punctuate the colours of the flag: ‘red white and blue’.  And at a certain point it is just to do with personal idiosyncrasy, suggesting a rhythm in which the writer would like the passage to be read.

Many books and websites give extensive guidance on the issue.  I understand that, for the most part, commas are used for clarity.  ‘My girl Bill’ is different to, ‘She’s my girl, Bill.’  Easy.

But none of these sources seem to answer the issues I have.  For example if I see anything more than seven words unpunctuated I start to panic.  (That sentence was like cold turkey.)  Also, I have noticed that if I take a quarter breath while writing, I automatically stick a comma in (like that last one).

So have a look at the following examples from my previous posts or emails:

  1. The great thing is, she’s just started.
  2. If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back.
  3. In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma.
  4. Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence?
  5. This time, the comma.

How would you punctuate them?  I took these examples to a comma expert (no really) who offered the following opinions:

  1. The great thing is, she’s just started.  This is an example of the comma for efficient reading.  So you don’t have to go back a second time to read it in order for it to make sense.  (Though she was not happy with the dangling ‘is’.)
  2. If this doesn’t work for you, we’ll arrange a time when I get back.  Again, efficient reading, without the comma, it would read ‘you we’, which could cause confusion.
  3. In the next episode, Dr Gapper tackles the comma.  This comma is not needed, it should be read as one flowing sentence.
  4. Like, what’s it doing after ‘Like’ in this sentence?  Yes, ok.  It is being used to introduce an idea, like a sort of mini-colon.
  5. This time, the comma.  Again, efficient reading.  Having the words ‘this time the comma’ could be confusing.

At which point I would like to quote The Social Network: ‘Ann, punch me in the face will you?’  Because it can all get a bit nit-picky and there are probably better things to do with our lives.  But if you have your own opinions do join in the debate.  I say this knowing that it is usually the cue for the distant sound of wind and the sight of tumbleweed on the horizon.

Next time, Dr Gapper will examine his own use of the semi-colon.  Book your holidays now.

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