Commas: Less is More?

Comma yes, comma, no? Which is correct?

I’ll say this right out from the get-go: I am a comma lover.

A comma is for clarity. A comma has a purpose.

Hello, I am a comma. How do you do?

And all too often, I see a whole lot of neglect for commas. And it begets so much confusion and frustration on my part when I read writing that has minimal use of commas. I know I cannot be alone on this. I say that it’s better to have more commas than not. That’s what an Oxford comma is all about (placing the comma after the second to last item in a list).

Someone I don’t know recently said that commas are going out of fashion. Another someone that I don’t know recently said that commas are not necessarily meant to be interpreted as a “pause” in a sentence. I’m sorry, I just don’t understand either of those statements. For me, a comma represents the natural pause in speech. When I read, I “hear” the sentence in my head. Like music, a comma is a half-step pause, and a period is a full pause.

In my critique group, I see more no-comma writing than yes-comma writing, for lack of a better term. So what is it with the lack of commas! Are people not learning this in school anymore? Isn’t the whole point of writing to communicate? And how is a sentence communication if it has to be read more than once because it was hard to understand the first time due to lack of commas? Do folks not process the comma when they read anymore?

Common Comma Rules

  • A comma is to separate words and phrases in a series, unless they are connected by conjunctions (and, or).
  • A comma is used to separate parenthetical (transition) or contrasting statements. This error I see much too often and is the number one cause of confusion for me.
    Example: Students, I fear, are not learning proper comma usage nowadays; nevertheless, we must always strive to do better!
  • Another common error I see: a lack of a comma to indicate a nonrestrictive adjective clause — or in layman’s terms, a clause that isn’t necessary to make a complete sentence.
    Example: Students, and you with the green hair, pay attention!
  • And then the errors with dialogue tags:
    She said, “Use a comma before opening the dialogue.”
    “Depending on the dialogue, it will usually end with a comma,” he replied.

The key is that commas are for clarity. This is why reading your writing out loud is important. Unless you don’t read punctuation marks while you read. Then I suppose reading out loud isn’t very helpful.

I read classic fiction and “older” fantasy books so I don’t see comma errors in these books. But I was wondering if there are published works out there that have this “modern comma” usage (i.e., the lack thereof)? Is this why folks aren’t using commas anymore?

Bonus content: Here’s an easy semicolon rule: connect two related clauses (that are complete sentences) with a semicolon, not a comma.


21 responses to “Commas: Less is More?

  1. I agree, commas are being neglected lately. My only problem with commas is that I start to second guess myself. And then, I feel like, I need to, put commas everywhere. Does that ever happen to you? Nice post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And yes, more often than not I’ll find something of a comma explosion on the page. Putting a day or two between writing and editing usually solves this problem!


  2. “When I read, I “hear” the sentence in my head. Like music, a comma is a half-step pause, and a period is a full pause.” — I loved this line. 🙂

    I’m comma crazy too. I think that it can empathize meaning and tone. If people don’t like them, I think it’s just a stylistic choice. As for me, I will continue to use commas.

    Semi-colons are my favorite!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel that writers are artists, creating a melody with words. Commas (and every other punctuation mark for that matter) are the building blocks of writing. Without them, it’s chaos!

      Semicolons are my favorite, too! And colons, because I love lists.

      Thanks for an always lovely comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am 100% with you on this. I always try to err on the side of more commas, not necessarily for pauses in speech but for clarity. I don’t like when people insist on using fewer commas, then they wonder why others are confused by their writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Right, I would also rather have more commas (for clarity) rather that not have enough and risk being misunderstood. It’s such an important punctuation mark next to the period, I don’t understand why it’s so neglected!


  4. Another use I find irritating and that seems worse lately is using commas in lists of attributes in the same category.

    An example might work better: Jamie was a tall thin drink of water. vs. Jamie was a tall, thin, drink of water. The extra commas in the second version make you pause where no pause is necessary.

    Punctuation is supposed to make the written word more like the spoken word, so that the picture in your head goes in as easily as possible.

    I’ve noticed an opposite problem in TV and movie (but mostly TV) dialogue: a comma must be written, but the actor uses it to get a tiny bit more airtime – or pauses because he/she senses the comma is there for a reason (it, but the reason is not a pause).

    Example again (though you’ll have to try to imagine it – and then catch actors doing it): Here is the list of groceries you asked me to write (pause) Mary. The writer wrote the comma, because we separate out the name of people in dialogue when WRITING it, but the actor turned it into a pause. Real people would NEVER speak that way, though it is clear from their intonation that we have reached the place where Mary’s existence is acknowledged. Try it out loud. “Here is the list of groceries you asked me to write, Mary.” Now watch TV carefully for a week, and tell me if it is not so.


    PS Uses the Oxford comma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples! Thank you so much for the input. You’re so spot on about how commas are misused, and how they should be used. I’m a firm believer in grammatical rules, and seeing them being so broken and abused these days gives me much frustration. In the name of “self expression.” When, in these rare case, I watch television, captions are always on. Drama is one thing, but poor usage is another.

      Thank you for such an insightful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m with you on this one! I absolutely dislike reading a long paragraph without comas. It’s frustrating and I have to read it all over again!
    By the way, Opiniated Man brought me here! 🙂


  6. Sadly, commas aren’t the only punctuation being overlooked any more. Lord, what my English teacher would have said if she caught any of us forgetting to use a comma properly! Like you, I “hear” it in my head. And sometimes it can get downright confusing or funny when commas aren’t used properly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Comma placement is something that is important to me as a writer. It’s so important that it drives fmily members crazy. My in-laws received a sign for their yard from one of their grandchildren that reads ‘Slow Grandparents at Play’. I asked them if they were upset that their grandchild thinks they are mentally challenged and they looked at me like I had two heads. I used a post-it note to correct it to ‘Slow, Grandparents at Play’.

    Liked by 1 person

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