To Beat a Grammarian: Commas (Part One)
I cannot vent my frustration enough with these kinds of people! You know them—grammar Nazis. They follow the rules rigidly, and should a rule change, they ignore it vehemently, basing their adamancy on it not coinciding with some near-religious text they once read. In other words, zealots!
But they exist. And to draw a quick analogy: it’s like leaning over to your friend and saying, “Hey, look at that pretty girl over there,” only to have him lean back and say, “Yeah, but her chin sticks out too much, her eyelashes could be longer and, besides that, it’s much more customary not to wear that colored blouse this season.” Can’t the girl just be pretty?
So to combat them, I’ve decided to present little details every so often that I’ve noticed are nit-picky aspects of a grammarian’s repertoire. These are the peccadillos that I’m slowly learning as my own writing or others are ripped apart by these fundamentalists.
So here we go:
Commas (Part One)
I teach in Korea, a place where commas aren’t so greatly used. The language is made to not need them. For this reason, I see many blatant misuses of a very commonly abused punctuation. My students will interchange it with periods because, well, they aren’t exactly sure how they’re different. I can fathom it a bit, but what I can’t grasp is other English teachers or writers doing the same. So here are a few basics.
This is when a comma is used instead of a period. As in this sentence:
I went home, my brother hit me.
Many have a problem with this because computer writing programs don’t even pick this up as incorrect. Right now, my Microsoft Word should be underlining it in green, but it doesn’t.
Correct form: I went home. My brother hit me.
Moving on, we come to the mythos of…CLARITY.
This one even the New Yorker claims as their sole reason behind any—and they have many—comma use. It makes sense in reason but can easily get out of hand at other times. However, I do agree with it in one area: subordinate clauses. If the subordinator begins the sentence, then the comma must come before the next subject to avoid confusion. Take a look below:
When I was eating the baby carrots fell to the floor.
At first glance, it seems you were eating the baby. Eventually, you realize the mistake and correct it in your head. One of my students actually wrote this, and he and I laughed greatly at it. Even though we can figure it out upon reading the whole sentence, this pause for understanding ruins the flow of the writing, and when it comes to fiction, momentum is key. Mistakes like that can derail even the most understanding of readers.
Correct form: When I was eating, the baby carrots fell to the floor.
The opposite of this should be observed as well. Too often, because of the rule above, writers feel a comma must be inserted anytime a subordinate is present, like below:
I went to the mall, because I wanted to see my friends.
Here, the comma is not needed. In fact, commas should be avoided around subordinates most of the time unless these subordinate phrases are interjected mid-sentence. The correct form is:
I went to the mall because I wanted to see my friends.
For now, that’s good. But, clearly, there will be more. Commas—and grammarians—have many issues. I hope to cover more at another time. If you have any comments so far, please, give me a heads up.
P.S. If you have any other examples—specifically hilarious ones—please drop them below as well. Thanks!