Commas

Posted by & filed under Punctuation and Grammar.

We could live without some commas, but eliminating all of them would hinder clarity, and people would waste time rewriting the sentence just to avoid using them.

A linguist at Columbia, John McWhorter, says that many text messages and email illustrate that most commas could be removed from writing without any risk to clarity, and that we probably could eliminate all commas by just recasting the sentence, according to an article on Slate. McWhorter is not advocating the omission of commas; he is simply saying that in some contexts a comma serves no purpose, and he and language historian Anne Curzan both see a trend toward diminished use of commas.

The idea that commas might not be necessary prompts two observations:

  • Commas are important to clarity in some instances, and while we might get away without them in texting, corporate America doesn’t run on text messaging. In important communication, you need to know where they go.
  • When it comes to the language, people are happy to find excuses and rationalizations for avoiding things they don’t want to learn. “Commas are old school. We don’t need them anymore” is more convenient than making the effort to learn where they are appropriate.

Clearly communicating

It’s true that we have historically used commas in a few places where they were not necessary for clear understanding, such as in When I get back I will call you. There, we typically insert a comma after back because the opening clause When I get back is considered an introductory element; it introduces the main thought of the sentence. But most readers would derive the same meaning with or without the comma.

It’s also true that we often can get by without them in short, hastily written email or text messages. But many commas communicate subtle differences in meaning. Without them, a reader wastes time deciphering the intended meaning, or, in many cases, doesn’t notice the ambiguity and simply derives the incorrect meaning. In an important memo or a more formal document, that can tarnish credibility, lead to miscommunication, or be costly.

Notice these two sentences:

Republicans who support the president voted for the bill.
Republicans, who support the president, voted for the bill.

Most people can notice a difference, even if they can’t identify what it is.  The first sentence distinguishes the Republicans who voted for the bill from those GOP members who didn’t. Who voted for the bill? Those Republicans who support the president. The second sentence says that all Republicans voted for the bill. The information set off by the commas (who support the president) is considered extra, or not essential to the main idea. The core thought is Republicans voted for the bill. Well, not quite. Some did, only those who support the president.

Take responsibility; it’s only punctuation

People avoid solving problems they don’t want to deal with, and for adults, grammar and punctuation is top the list. But this is not biomolecular chemistry; it’s punctuation. Yes, there are some nuances to remember, but it is not complex. Outside of the period, we only have commas, semicolons, and dashes to worry about, and when it comes to commas, there are only five places where we use them. (Send an email to Ken@WritingWithClarity.com, and I will send you a page listing them.)

Many people cannot recall what they learned in high school or college about punctuation and grammar, and that is understandable, but it is not an excuse to pretend that punctuation isn’t important or that it is too complicated to learn.

So for the sake of clarity, which is essential to business communication, and for the sake of credibility, which is essential to your career, be sure that your comma-less sentence doesn’t leave the reader scratching her head.

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Ken O’Quinn is a professional writing coach and former Associated Press writer who conducts corporate workshops on business writing, persuasive writing, and corporate communications writing. He is the author of Perfect Phrases for Business Letters (McGraw-Hill), which is available here at Amazon.com.

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