Punctuation and the Tone-Scape of Writing

In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.

I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it with you, my dear readers.

For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.

The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.

The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.

Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:

In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:

Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.

The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.

Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).

Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.

As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.

The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. The parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).

The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing gives that writing three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.

Next Up: Back to Commas!—But First: Two More Ways to Create Tone

Before continuing our (phenomenally enlightening) discussion of commas, I want to share a few other ways to create this three-dimensional tone in writing. One way is using italics to place extra tone on a word or phrase. We often do this in speaking, when we say things like, “Yeah, Bob, I could help you mow the lawn tomorrow.” (Compare that to the statement, “I could help you mow the lawn tomorrow.” Two very different statements, aren’t they?)

Another way to create tone is with the ellipsis, which shows a hesitation (especially one of uncertainty) within a sentence. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, but . . . what exactly is an ellipsis?” The ellipsis—often called “three dots” or (worse yet) “dot dot dot”—shows a long, drawn out hesitation, just as it did in that previous sentence. A writer can also use the ellipsis at the end of a sentence to show a sense of waiting or trailing off. Can you think of some examples of such sentence endings? . . . (Well, obviously you can now!)

I will discuss these techniques in more detail in future installments of The Writer’s Toolbox, but before we explore advanced punctuation further, there are still some more points to consider about the comma.

The next article answers a question often asked by students and by other curious individuals: “If I am listing three or more items in a list, do I need to put a comma before and?”

In other words, consider the sentences below. Which one is right? . . .

I enjoy writing, chess, and grilling. (comma before and)

or

I enjoy writing, chess and grilling. (no comma before and)

Want to find out? Click the link below. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Christmas Present: A Son’s Thanks

I am interrupting this discussion of All about Commas for a moment to share a piece of personal writing. In all of this discussion of commas and semicolons, we should not forget the value of writing–the reason for mastering writing tools and techniques: to communicate to others our pains and losses, our blessings and victories, our opinions and assertions. This particular piece, entitled “The Christmas Present,” captures my pain and loss, but it also expresses my blessings and victories.

I hope that it speaks to you.

–Chris

The Christmas Present

It seemed I would never fall asleep. When I finally did, in my dreams danced visions of reindeer and flying sleighs and fat jolly red-suited old men chuckling merrily through flowing white beards. It was Christmas Eve, and I was certain that at any moment Santa would fly down our chimney and silently place our gifts around the tree and fill our stockings with candy. I did not want to go to the Christmas Eve service at our church because I wanted to make certain Santa knew that John and I were tucked away in our beds fast asleep, ready for the Jolly Old Elf’s annual visit. I cried; I complained: we couldn’t—“We just couldn’t miss Santa.”

I never rose out of my bed to spy, only to discover—like so many children—that it was not Santa tiptoeing about the living room in mystical silence, but my parents, studying the assembly instructions for toy trucks and tricycles, writing the letters that we thought were from Saint Nick, and filling the stockings with candy that they had purchased at the grocery store the day before. I remember wondering why my mother left the house so often during the days before Christmas, and I recall pondering why my father worked so many extra hours during those late autumn days. I did not know that he was working away furiously, tirelessly, so that he could pay for our toys and still take some days off to enjoy the holidays with his family. It’s funny, now that I think about it: I remember worrying that if my parents were away from the house too long on the night before Christmas, they would not be home for Santa’s arrival. Everyone had to be in bed. They couldn’t—“They just couldn’t miss Santa.”

Despite my fears, I would wake up every Christmas morning to toys spread across the living room floor, all the toys I wanted—there was never one missing. In fact, without fail, there were toys that I did not expect to receive, that I had never thought to ask Santa for when I sat on his lap at the local Cracker Barrel restaurant. It was—without fail—the most wonderful and enchanting day of the year. I can still smell the new plastic of the GI Joe jeeps, the shiny wagon-red paint of the go-cart, the Styrofoam that held the new color TV. I still see the gray-and-white bicycle and all of the Transformers and Go-Bots crawling across the living-room floor. Plastic and metal, the smell of new things–and then the candy, and then the turkey, and then the macaroni and cheese: the smells swirled together, and the toys were shiny and slippery with the turkey grease from my anxious little hands. Santa was wonderful—wonderful beyond my wildest dreams.

As I grew older, I came to realize that no man could possibly circumnavigate the globe in a single night and distribute toys to every single living child. I learned that there is no magical toy factory at the North Pole, that there is nothing there but towering white glaciers and endless sheets of ice. Like so many children-turned-adults, I learned that Santa is not real.

I learned this gradually. Understand that I was not one to sneak downstairs to spy on Santa (for he might see me and decide not to give me my presents for wandering away from my bed). It was age and logic that taught me the truth—that disillusioned me from this great romantic dream of a jolly old elf who never forgot one boy or girl on the night of December 24. It took me a long time not to hear those reindeer on the rooftop.

But as I grew older and realized that it was not an old man on a magical sleigh who delivered my presents, I never really recognized who did deliver all those goodies. Of course, I realized who did, but I never realized what they went through to do this—to do all of this work, only to give all credit to Santa. Those toys were not delivered in a flying red sleigh–they were delivered in the trunk of my mother’s car. No Santa came down the chimney to place those toys on the floor—he came in through the front door. This Santa did not live in the North Pole—He lived in Columbia, South Carolina. He did work all year long–not in a toy factory, but on his tractor and with his shovels and rakes and lawnmowers. As I grew older, I realized that Santa was not real, but I never realized the reality that my parents went through to bring us Christmas. It did not strike me until my twenty-seventh Christmas.

Yes, I grew older and I realized that Santa was not real, but still I would ravenously rip the wrapping paper away to discover all of the presents beneath, never once noticing the hands that brought them to me. I failed to realize that, every Christmas, there was still one present I did not notice. Every Christmas, that present would lean against the back wall of the living room or sit in the kitchen, never to be found, never to be opened, perhaps hoping for me to discover it the next Christmas. The toy soldiers, the go-carts, the bicycles, the stereos, the televisions, the camcorders—I was too caught up with these things to ever take hold of the greatest gift of all. It has taken me twenty seven years to find it, to look past all of these objects to see the greatest Christmas Present of all—one that no amount of money could ever buy. And, even if Santa did exist, and even if he could fly around the world and bring all of the little boys all of the gifts they ever wanted, this was one gift Santa could not deliver—not with one hundred sleighs and a legion of reindeer. And I never saw it: the best gift of all, the one who gave me Santa, the one who sacrificed so much so I could have a merry Christmas: my father. He was the best Christmas gift I ever received.

And he still is.

About this Piece:

I wrote this essay in December, 2004, when I was a penniless graduate student and had no money to purchase a Christmas gift for my father. These words are the thanks of a grateful son, in honor of my father, John R. Altman Sr., who not only gave me twenty-seven merry Christmases—but also who, through his loving and unwavering support, made my dream of a college education a possibility.

Cancer took my father from me in October, 2009. As October approaches once again, I find myself returning to this essay. I also return to it in Christmas, presenting it to friends and colleagues as part of the holiday celebrations. I have never been able to finish it without crying. I will try again this year, and once again I will fail.

This piece is also in honor of my mother, Patty Altman, who continues to love and support her children with her kindness and attentiveness.

–Christopher Altman, 2012

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


When Commas Collide: Confusion over Closely Placed Commas

Once again, here are the four essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set off modifying clauses and phrases from the main message of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

4. Commas separate items in lists.

Sometimes these comma functions run together. The untrained eye sees commas as just that: a bunch of commas. The reader—at least at first glance—does not see how two commas in a sentence are setting off an interrupting phrase, while another nearby set of commas is separating items in a list. He sees only one running group of commas, but that grouping makes no sense.

I contend that these situations are to blame for the generally held myth that commas are confusing and too variable to understand. In reality, commas are simple–that is, once we understand the essential roles they play in sentences. Still, even if commas are simple to the well trained writer, they may not be so simple to our readers.  With that point in mind, keeping commas from running together is the writer’s responsibility.

What do I mean by the notion of commas running together? An example will serve best:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising.

Now, notice that these commas occur in relatively close proximity of each other. This might cause the reader to think, for example, that I am setting off the phrase, “teaches courses,” from the main line of the sentence. But that’s not at all what I am doing. Those two commas are not acting as a paired group to set off “teaches courses.” Just to know for sure, let’s remove the phrase to see if it is not part of the sentence’s main line:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, but he performs other duties, . . .

Yuck!–That omission didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work because those two commas—although very close in proximity—are not working together to set off the phrase “teaches courses.” Those commas are performing two separate roles. The first comma (the one before teaches) is acting as the closing comma for setting off the phrase “like most educators” from the main line of the sentence. It applies backward to the previous phrase—not forward to the following one. The second comma (the one that occurs between educators and but) serves the role of strengthening the conjunction but as a sentence combiner.

In other words, when confused by closely placed comma groups, the reader sees this . . .

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the red parts, and the sentence makes zero sense.)

. . . and not the intended message:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the green parts, and the sentence makes perfect sense–even if it’s a little less detailed.)

Let’s remove those (green) groups to see if we are left with a sentence that flows and makes sense:

Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, student advising.

That reads perfectly well. Now we are seeing the comma groups correctly, as the omissions above confirm. However, seeing those groups correctly takes some effort, so our readers may not see those groups as we intend. Also, removing these modifying phrases is simply a test for identifying comma groups; the writer should not remove them in the finished sentence. Think about it: the writer was inclined to include these points to write a detailed, fully qualified statement. With that goal in mind, is there a way to keep the qualifying, modifying phrases, while avoiding comma confusion?

Sure there is! Let’s use some simple techniques to make the intended message clear:

Like most educators, Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties: course planning, committee work, and–last but not least–student advising. (Ah-ha!)

Here’s what I did:

1. I reordered parts of the sentence to eliminate the need for mid-sentence interrupters. (I moved the phrase “like most educators” to the beginning of the sentence.)

2. I used a colon to introduce the list of Professor Pierson’s tasks (instead of using including–which requires a comma). In effect, this replacement eliminates the need for yet another cluttered comma. (A colon is one dot above the other: quite the useful writing technique. I will discuss it further in the Writer’s Toolbox series on advanced punctuation.)

3. I used dashes instead of commas to set off the modifying phrase “last but not least” within the list. This way, the modifying phrase is not seen as another item in the comma-separated list. Also, since dashes often create a spontaneous tone for the parts they set off, they are more fitting to the sentence’s style.

An Analogy for Avoiding Comma Confusion

Here is an analogy for understanding comma clutter: when a sentence becomes cluttered with commas, it is the equivalent of two employees from different companies, who—as chance would have it—are working in town within just a few feet of one another. Understandably, a passerby might mistakenly think that they are working together on the same project, when they are really performing two completely separate tasks.

The solution? Simple: just put the two workers in different uniforms. That way,  people will not become confused as to the companies the workers represent.

Sentences are the same way. When I have many groupings of words, clauses, lists, and phrases in one sentence, I need to put those different workers in distinctive uniforms so that my reader will not become confused as to what those workers are doing. That’s where the writer’s toolbox comes in: the more the writer knows about dashes, colons, parentheses, and other writing tools, the more options she has for developing accurate, crystal-clear sentences.

Next Up: More on Alternative Punctuation

I have mentioned how dashes and parentheses can act as alternatives to commas, particularly for purposes of avoiding comma confusion. But what else do these specialized forms of punctuation do? To learn more, see the next article.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Other Comma Separations

In addition to separating items in lists, commas separate other things. For example, commas separate elements within a date, specifically the day of the month and the year:

Christopher Altman’s birthday is November 18, 1977.

Do you hear the pause between “18” and “1977”? Do you hear the slight change in pitch? That single comma creates both of those effects. Comma functions often overlap in this way.

I should also mention that November 18 is my actual birthday. Mark it on your calendar and send me a present when that date rolls around. And when you send me that computer or flat-screen TV (okay, okay–I’ll settle for a good book!), make sure to note that I live in Syracuse, NY—and don’t forget that comma between city and state.

Commas Make Long Numerical Expressions Easy to Read

Commas also serve an important but often under appreciated function in writing large numbers: they separate numbers into sets of three digits to help the reader differentiate between large number groups like millions, billions, trillions, and so on. Here is an example of a number without commas:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40927943.00.

Ugh. That’s hard to read. Now, try this one:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40,927,943.00

Unless you are very good with numbers, I expect you had a great deal of trouble figuring out if that first number was in the 40 millions or the 400 millions. In fact, I’ll wager that many readers attempting to identify that comma-less number would identify it by mentally grouping the numbers, from right to left, into sets of three. The comma does that for the reader, allowing her to know the identity of large numbers, at a glance. Yet again—even with numerical expressions—the comma functions to serve our readers. (Note: a space does not follow a comma within a number.)

As a courtesy to our readers, we should apply this rule even to easy-to-read four-digit numbers:

In November, my delighted readers are going to send me that flat-screen television–one that costs over $6,000.00!

(Why do I get the feeling that I’m far more likely to find a 6,000-page book in my mailbox in November?)

Next Up: When Commas Collide

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses, commas are useful, indeed essential, to clear, effective writing, another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

Did you find the previous sentence confusing? I’ll bet you did. Here’s why: comma confusion. All of the commas that appear in that sentence are serving legitimate comma functions. The issue is that those functions are colliding, causing the reader to become confused between the different commas and their separations.

Here is a revised version of that sentence:

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses; commas are useful—indeed essential—to clear, effective writing: another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

(Much easier to read, isn’t it?)

Want to learn more? The next article explores comma confusion and ways to avoid it. Check it out by clicking the link below. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Commas Separate Things

Before examining the final comma function, let’s review the running list of essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set things off from the main line of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

I saved the most essential comma function for last. Here it is, in all of its grand complexity:

Commas separate things.

In previous articles, we have explored how commas separate modifying elements (words, phrases, and clauses) from the main line of a sentence. In a very general sense, when I say, “Commas separate things,” I could mean that such separations include the divisions between those modifying elements. With functions 1 and 3 in mind, I could mean that commas separate things (like modifying elements) by representing slight pauses and drops in pitch. In this general sense, the notion that “commas separate things” serves as the all-encompassing comma function.

In this article, though, I intend this rule in a very specific sense. With that in mind, I will modify the rule a bit:

Commas separate items to show that they are to be considered as individual things.

The most frequent expression of this comma function is the separation of items within lists.

Commas Separate Items in Lists

This function applies when we use commas to separate items in a list (also called “items in a series”). Consider the example below:

The series on apostrophes will explore possessives, contractions, and s-ending nouns.

Notice the commas in the sentence above. They act as visual guides to the reader, to express the notion that the three items are separate and distinct from one another but that they are still connected in the sense that they are all explored in the series on apostrophes. (Paradoxically, the comma combines things, even as it divides them.) If the sentence is spoken, those commas become pauses that allow the listener to hear the separations.

But are these commas necessary? After all, the reader could get by without the aid of those commas in determining that the items are separate. Here is the sentence, without the commas:

The series on apostrophes explores possessives contractions and s-ending nouns.

Even if we can perceive these separations without the help of dividing commas (and most readers can), this second sentence requires more thinking on the part of the reader—but it’s not the kind of thinking we want readers to do. It makes the reader do a double-take. Sure, the reader can get by. However, getting by is most assuredly not what we want for our readers. We want to serve our readers with prose that guides them smoothly and seamlessly through our ideas and assertions. If readers do not feel well served, they will turn away from our writing and find something better to read. And why shouldn’t they? (Well, that’s the last thing we want, so we’d better use those commas!)

Although I discuss them here as an element that writers use to serve readers, such dividing commas are not merely a matter of preference. The use of dividing commas is a set-in-stone writing practice, but one that exists for good reason: clear communication.

In some cases, these separating commas are absolutely necessary to the meaning of sentences. In such situations, the reader cannot even manage get by in understanding the prose’s essential message. For example, consider this sentence:

I enjoy writing music and poetry.

What am I saying here? Am I saying that I enjoy three acts (writing, music, and poetry), or that I enjoy two acts (writing music and [reading] poetry)? There is yet a third possibility: I could be saying that I enjoy writing both music and poetry.

Which of these three messages do I intend? Without the aid of commas, there is no way to know for sure. With no clarifying context, the reader has no way of knowing for sure what this sentence states. She is left with three possibilities, each of which makes sense in its own way. As she continues to read, she can only ponder which possibility she is reading about in later sentences and paragraphs. (Think about that: the lack of commas causes harm not only in the example sentence, but also in the sentences and paragraphs that follow.) If she’s lucky, the context will let her know the situation–but, chances are, the frustrated reader will be left in the dark, if only for a time. What reader wants that? You guessed it–no reader! With that point in mind, it’s our job as writers to get that sentence right the first time.

Should we put the comma before and in lists?

You may have noticed that I include the comma before and in a list of three or more items. For example, look at the sentence below, and notice that I place the final comma before and. I have put the comma in red font for your convenience:

The Three Cs of good writing are consciousness, caring, and consideration.

This particular comma placement goes by several names, the most prominent terms being “the Oxford comma” and “the serial comma.” Some writers argue that we should include that pre-and comma in lists, while others think it should not appear there. I explore this matter in an upcoming article, “The (Optional?) Oxford Comma.” To skip to that article on the Oxford comma, click here.

Next Up: Other Comma Separations

Commas serve even more functions as separators. We will explore some of these functions in the next article.

Here’s the link:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Commas Show a Slight Drop in Pitch

In addition to showing pauses, commas can represent slight drops in pitch. On rare occasions, commas serve this purpose even when there is no pause.

Here is a good example:

You are going to see that new Batman movie? I want to go, too.

The comma in the sentence above does not direct the reader to pause before too. Most people, I expect, would not read the sentence aloud this way:

I want to go [pause] too.

So if it doesn’t create a pause, what exactly does that comma do? Read the sentence aloud. Actually vocalize it—and when you do so, read it with meaning. Make sure to play the part: imagine that you are the would-be moviegoer, and that you sincerely want to catch that new blockbuster flick. Notice that there is a change in intonation when speaking the adverb too.

The comma shows this change, regardless of whether there is a pause. Most often though, commas show both a slight pause and a slight change in pitch or tone.

In effect, the sentence reads this way:

I want to go too.

Knowing this dual function of commas is a useful tool for composing natural, readable prose.

Next Up: Commas Separate Things

Here’s our running list of essential comma functions:

1. Commas show pauses within sentences (the comma rule of thumb).

2. Commas set off nonessential parts from the main syntax of a sentence.

3. Commas represent a slight drop in pitch (discussed in this article).

There is one more essential function of commas left to explore, but it takes several forms:

Commas separate things.

In a very general sense, this is the most essential comma function, since it covers the three functions we have discussed thus far in these explorations of the comma. However, when I say, “Commas separate things,” I am referring here to smaller divisions: separations between items in lists.

To view that article, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Commas Set Off Introducing and Concluding Elements

In the previous article, we explored how commas set off interrupting phrases. Commas are also used to set off phrases and dependent clauses from the complete-sentence part (independent clause) of the larger sentence.

Here is an example. Notice that there is only one comma. Consider why that is the case.

Recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

Think again about the main line of the sentence. Split the sentence in half, with the comma as the dividing wedge in the middle. We are left with these two parts:

1. Recognizing the comma’s complexity

2. Many new writers are afraid to use it

Which of these parts, if written or spoken alone, is a complete statement? If you aren’t sure, read each aloud, and imagine speaking it to someone.

Number 2 is the complete sentence. To show that Number 1 (which English teachers might call a “dependent clause”) is an unnecessary but enhancing appendage, we set it off from the main sentence with a comma. If it had occurred mid-sentence, that clause would have commas on both sides, like this:

Many new writers, recognizing the comma’s complexity, are afraid to use it.

Now, you may have noticed that the mid-sentence interrupter uses two commas, while the introductory clause uses only one comma. In the introductory example, the dependent clause occurs at the beginning of the sentence, so there is no need to have a comma at the beginning of the clause. Think about it: on that side, there is nothing to set the clause off from; all that’s there is the empty space between sentences. Just for the sake of exploration, let’s look at the clause with both commas in place:

,recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

If we make that unneeded comma invisible, we have our original sentence:

Recognizing the comma’s complexity, many new writers are afraid to use it.

As the sentences above demonstrate, a comma that appears to divide a sentence into two parts actually fulfills the same function as the two commas used to set off a mid-sentence interrupter. The difference is that we do not show the additional comma. The period (or other end punctuation) of the adjacent sentence makes that division, so it covers for the comma.

See how that works?

Here are a few additional examples. To show the process of rewriting these sentences, I present three steps for each: (1) the original mid-sentence interrupting clause, (2) the transitional clause-sentence form, with the extra comma left visible, and (3) the completed clause-sentence (or sentence-clause) form, with the extra comma omitted.

Mid-Sentence Interrupting Clause -> Introducing Clause

Original: Commas, although they involve many rules, make perfect sense.

Step 1: ,although they involve many rules, commas make perfect sense.

Step 2: Although they involve many rules, commas make perfect sense.

Mid-Sentence Interrupting Clause -> Concluding Clause

Original: Commas, although they involve many rules, make perfect sense.

Step 1: Commas make perfect sense, although they involve many rules,

Step 2: Commas make perfect sense, although they involve many rules.

So, whether we’re using two commas to set off an interrupting phrase, or using a single comma to set off an introductory clause, we are essentially doing the same thing: setting off an enhancing non-sentence phrase/clause from the core message of the sentence. While commas involve many rules, I hope that this article has helped simplify those rules for you.

Next Up: Commas Change Intonation

Here is our ongoing list of comma functions:

1. Commas show pauses (the comma rule of thumb).

2. Commas set off modifying parts from the main sentence:

A. Introductions

B. Interruptions

C. Conclusions

Believe it or not, commas serve even more purposes, but those additional purposes are minor compared with the functions we have explored. Still, they are worth examining, so I will do so in upcoming articles.

One such function is that commas can show a change in how we read and intone words. If you want to know more, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Commas Set Off Mid-Sentence Interrupters

Commas are used to set off interrupting phrases from the main line of a sentence, particularly when there are slight pauses to set off such phrases. What do I mean by “interrupting phrases” or “the main line of a sentence”?

Here is an example:

The comma, possibly the most complex punctuation mark, is a necessary writing tool.

Notice where I use commas. If we were to remove the words that appear between those two commas, would the sentence still make sense?

Let’s try it. First, I will highlight the part to be omitted in red. Notice how the part we are omitting is framed on both sides with commas:

The comma, possibly the most complex punctuation mark, is a necessary writing tool.

And now, let’s simply remove the commas and all that sits between them:

The comma is a necessary writing tool.

This new version, where I omitted the phrase that falls between the commas, makes perfect sense. Still, it lacks personality—spice. (Those of us in the English business have a name for that spice: style.) Although the shortened version expresses the essential fact of the statement, the original (longer) version is enhanced by the interrupting phrase. We want to keep that phrase somewhere within the sentence, while showing that it is not part of the main, factual expression of the sentence. How do we do that?

That, my friends, is where the comma comes in. It sets off the phrase as an “extra,” but still includes it within the context of the larger (and otherwise dull) statement of fact. It tells your readers, “I am including this phrase because it is helpful, but it is not the main idea I am expressing in this sentence.” Remember the comma rule of thumb—the idea that commas represent pauses in writing? It applies here, since these commas show pauses. Those pauses imbue the interrupting phrase with emphasis. They say, “Pause here, dear reader, and consider this.” So, even as they tell the reader that the phrase is set off from the main sentence, these commas encourage brief consideration of that modifying, enhancing phrase. They create a moment to showcase that interrupting point before moving on with the rest of the sentence.

Next Up: Commas Set Off Introducing and Concluding Elements in Sentences

In this article we explored the following structure:

(beginning of sentence) , (interrupting phrase or clause) , (end of sentence)

The next article will show how commas set off phrases and clauses that introduce or conclude a sentence. Such sentences would have one of the following two structures:

1. (introducing phrase or clause), (sentence)

2. (sentence), (concluding phrase or clause)

I’ll go ahead and let you in on the big secret:

Although they look different, all three of these examples involve the same technique.

Confused? Let me put it to you another way:

All three of these examples, although they look different, involve the same technique.

Now, try this on for size:

All three of these examples involve the same technique, although they look different.

Want to learn more? If so, this is the link for you:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Other Comma Placement Errors

So far, we have explored two comma errors:

The comma splice: trying to connect two complete sentences with only a comma

The subject-predicate comma: placing a comma between the subject and predicate when there should be no punctuation

The third type of comma misplacement is simply screwing up and placing a comma in some random place where there should be no comma. This odd comma creates an awkward, disruptive pause—one that leaves readers confused and annoyed. Unlike the subject-predicate comma, this error has no method to its madness. It is random and unexplainable.

Well, to be fair, there is one other case of comma misplacement that has some method to its madness. In the course of my time teaching, I often encounter this odd comma placement practice:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement which, paid off in his writing.

Now read that sentence aloud. Pause briefly and naturally at the precise spot where the comma occurs. This is what you would hear:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement which [pause] paid off in his writing.

That doesn’t sound right, does it? The reason it doesn’t sound right is simple: it isn’t right! Still, you may have noticed that there should indeed be a comma-pause in this sentence. Where would you place that comma?

The answer is to place it precisely where you hear the pause: before which—not after it:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement, which paid off in his writing.

Here’s how it sounds:

Bob worked hard to learn comma placement [pause] which paid off in his writing.

Do you see what caused the student to make the error in the original sentence? The student, hearing a pause directly before the word which, attempted to show that pause by placing the comma after which. For some reason, logic failed, and the writer did not place the comma where the pause actually occurs (in the space between the words placement and which). Although I do not know for sure, some cases of this error could be a symptom of dyslexia or some similar learning or cognitive disability, but oftentimes it is simply caused from a lack of good old-fashioned common sense. New freshman writers too often consider the arts of writing to be some encoded, esoteric practice, so they fail to see the common sense that governs most good writing practices.

 

Comma Misplacement: Sometimes We Just Mess Up!

Sometimes, comma errors are completely random. Perhaps the, comma was a slip of the finger, as seen in this sentence’s first comma. (When typing that sentence, my finger actually slipped and tapped the comma key. I thought this delightfully well timed error would serve as a perfect example of how even knowledgeable writers can suffer the occasional slip of the finger.) This issue is resolved by practicing effective proofreading methods, which I will share in a later article. (Why don’t I just share those methods with you now? Two words: job security!) Still, even the most attentive proofreader with the most effective methods commits an occasional typo and never catches it. Such is life: typos are sneaky bastards.

Most comma-placement decisions are remarkably simple: just place a comma where you hear a pause. So, why do people make them so difficult? And what reasoning do people give to account for their odd comma practices? Perhaps the writer, completely uninformed regarding the functions of commas, is simply trying to meet some imagined comma quota. Believe it or not, I have encountered this approach.

I recall teaching a college freshman who, somewhere along the way, had picked up the notion that he needed to have at least one comma per sentence. So, even if a sentence did not warrant a comma, this fellow would simply throw one into the mix, wherever it “looked right.” Faced with the utter outlandishness of this student’s comma philosophy, I did not know whether to laugh or to cry (so I simply chose to stare blankly into space for a moment before assisting the unfortunate fellow with his writing).

I think part of the reason for such counterintuitive writing practices is that people do not view punctuation and grammar as serving any purpose beyond looking right or sounding proper. It is also due to a misperception that effective writing is a matter of following a mathematical formula (as in, “To have a good sentence, include X number of commas per Y number of words”). Nonsense!

Although it follows no such formulas, punctuation does have applicable purposes. This is especially true of the comma, which serves more roles in writing than any other mark of punctuation. (Consider, for example, the two roles the comma plays in that last sentence. Consider also how I used the comma in that first parenthetical sentence. The comma is a hard worker indeed.)

Next Up: Different Comma Functions

So far, we have explored the comma in terms of what not to do. We have applied the comma rule of thumb to develop a sense of the comma in prose. We have examined comma splices and other comma errors. But we still haven’t explored the individual functions of commas: the many ways that they enhance our sentences. Commas represent pauses in writing—fair enough—but what exactly do those pauses do?

That, dear reader, is the subject of the articles that follow. To read the first of those articles, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).