‘Commaphobes’ and ‘Commaphiles’: grammar and meaning-making

The university I am affiliated to recently undertook a Grammarly trial, to see whether it would be worth investing in a campus license for all staff and students. I reluctantly agreed to take part. Reluctantly, because one of my job hats is a copyediting and proofreading hat, and I was pretty sure my grammar was just fine, thank you. But, I like to be helpful, and taking part and giving the educational technology division feedback was helpful.

This is not a punt for Grammarly – their web advertising has that covered. This post is a punt for being conscious of grammar, and its role in meaning-making in your writing. Specifically, this post is about the humble comma.

Image by PDPics from Pixabay

When I was teaching academic writing courses a long time ago at a different university, one of my colleagues in a group making meeting made a comment about student writers and commas. She suggested that some students are ‘commaphobes’, writing long, verbose sentences with no commas at all, when there should definitely be some. On the other hand, there are ‘commaphiles’, who love commas, and insert them, everywhere, even when there should be no comma there, at all. I am not sure what a writer who falls in the middle would be called (suggestions welcome in the ‘comments’), but I thought I was middle-ground here, like the third bowl of porridge in Goldilocks: just right.

Boy, was I wrong. Grammarly has gently, but firmly, pointed out to me over the last two months that on the comma-continuum, I am definitely leaning towards being a ‘commaphile’. It’s kind of amazing to be offered this insight into my writing – specifically grammatical – habits at this stage of my career. I had no idea that I over-used commas, and what they do to the coherence of my writing and the meanings I make.

What is the role of a comma in writing, and in meaning-making? A comma is a pause. According to this website, a comma performs one or more of 10 different functions in writing. The most common, perhaps, are separating an introductory word from the rest of the sentence (However, …); delineating separate but connected clauses (Most academic writing is challenging, but there are ways to develop your skills); and to create lists (Firstly, you can visit your campus writing centre, secondly, you can join a writing group with peers, …). When we see a comma as readers, we pause, and that pause helps us to make sense of what we are reading. Take the commas away from this blog post, or from a paper your are writing or reading at the moment, and see what effect that has on your sense-making.

There is a well-known book about the importance of correct punctuation in the English language. It takes its title after the often-cited example of the value of a well-placed comma: Eats, shoots and leaves. As in: A panda eats, shoots and leaves, or A Panda eats shoots and leaves. On one, you have a homicidal animal, and in the other, you have an animal eating her dinner. Here’s another one: Let’s eat Grandma, or Let’s eat, Grandma. There are many you could think of, I am sure. And some are quite funny. Probably, the over- or under-use of commas in academic or scholarly writing will cause fewer laughs, but their value is no less important for meaning making. Too many pauses breaks up the sentence you are writing, and can confuse the reader, especially, when they are put in the wrong, place. Too few and the effect is also confusion and probably re-reading because it may be the case that there is more than one clause in that sentence however even though you have no commas they may be able to work it out on their own.

Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay

So, how do you see and hear commas in your own writing, and work to rationalise your use of them so you are ‘just right’ on the comma-continuum? Well, you could make use of free software, like Grammarly. Or you could go old school, and start reading your writing out loud to yourself, or to a critical friend. Reading aloud forces you to switch from being the writer in your own head to be the reader of your work. This can be a low-key, useful approach to hearing the pauses, and figuring out if they should be there, or not. (I could have deleted that last one and the sentence would work just fine, for example). You can also be really brave and set up a critical friendship pair or small group where you regularly reach out and share writing with peers at your university or college. Even just getting feedback on a few pages can help you to step back from your writing and see as well as hear it with fresh eyes and ears.

The humble comma, like all punctuation, plays a significant role in meaning-making in writing. Far from being a technical feature of writing that you use because you know you have to have punctuation, you need to really think about the role it is playing and the meanings you are trying to make. Do you need the pause? Yes? Insert a comma. Can the sentence work without it? Yes? Then maybe take it out, read the sentence over, and see what you make of it. Using punctuation, like other features of writing, requires us to be conscious writers. To really think as we write about what we want and need to say, and how to get that across to our target audience. I have certainly been reminded of this recently, and find myself far more aware, as I write, of my position on the comma-continuum as I keep striving to get my writing ‘just right’.