Sunday, June 13, 2010

SQUIDS 101: Punctuation: Commas

The following material is taken from my book, which is in its last editing stages, glory hallelujah. I'll probably post the rest of my goofy guide to punctuation over time.

Another ENEMY to sentence rhythm: the wrong punctuation. I am obsessed with punctuation because I am a very aural editor, and punctuation is (or should be) the writer's primary means of registering the tones and pauses in a dramatic scene. Pauses have drama, and too many pauses can make too much drama, but too few might make a reader miss some crucial information as the flow of words can overwhelm the facts within. Altogether, I agree with this wonderful quotation from Isaac Babel: “No steel can pierce the heart of man as icily as a full stop placed at the right moment.”

This, then, is the highly idiosyncratic Cheryl Klein Guide to Punctuation -- by no means a definitive guide to punctuation -- with the various marks analyzed in ascending order of their pause length and therefore drama. (The examples all involve squids for the lone reason that “squid” is a funny word.) If you would like a more serious guide to punctuation with clear and official rules of use, I suggest checking out


The lowly hardworking comma. It creates the briefest pause, used to establish a quick hitch in the flow of speech for either organizational or dramatic purposes. While every house or copyeditor has its own rules on how to use commas, I generally try to abide by the taste of the author and the point of the writing in question. For instance, technically, both of these sentences are correct:
I, personally, prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.

I personally prefer the elegance of the glass squid to the asymmetry of the cock-eyed squid.
The point of a sentence like this is not just to convey information about squid preferences, but to show the personality of the speaker. A very sententious, arrogant, or dramatic speaker might want those pauses around “personally” to emphasize that these are his personal tastes, and as such, you know, they’re not that important—at the same time implying that, because they’re his tastes, you might want to pay attention. A less sententious speaker might not want those pauses so the sentence flows faster and reads more smoothly (indeed, a speaker not wanting to draw attention to himself might delete the adverb altogether). Thus, depending on how much the writer and editor wanted to emphasize the speaker’s self-importance, those commas might be left in or taken away.

Because commas create pauses, a good rule of thumb is: The faster the action should move in a sentence or a scene, the fewer commas-of-choice you should have. Consider these two sentences:
The squid, furious, lashed out with six tentacles, grasping Martha about the neck.

The furious squid lashed out with six tentacles and grasped Martha about the neck.
Removing the commas-of-choice around the appositive "furious" and moving it back to become a preceding adjective makes the opening of the sentence move much more quickly, as the reader doesn't have to pause for the appositive. The additional value of "grasping" with comma vs. "and grasped" without is debatable, as I think long sentences without some pause actually get harder to read; but that may be because I'm just so much an aural reader that I want breathing spaces even in printed prose.

Of course, you can also use pauses to drag things out. In The Hunger Games example [that I quote in the book before this excerpt], the parallelism and many commas of “I will stare her down, I will not cry out, I will die, in my own small way, undefeated” hold the reader in suspense for the moment the knife will touch Katniss and cause her death, putting us on that same knife-edge.

Commas are also used to separate and organize items in a list:
The squid, ravenous, ate five sardines, six mussels, seven anemones, and a Boston cream pie.
That comma before the “and” here is known as the serial comma. Again, style varies from house to house and author to author, but I like having a comma before the “and” for maximum clarity. The writer and grammarian Martha Brockenbrough once tweeted this possibly apocryphal example of a book dedication: ‘To my parents, God and Ayn Rand.’” One hopes very much that a serial comma would have proved useful.


  1. I am a HUGE fan of the serial comma, and these days it's been going to the wayside. I say we get shirts, start a movement... and BRING IT BACK!

  2. There are a number of people I know who need to read this. :)

  3. Great guidelines, Cheryl!! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I actually hate serial commas, but in that case, WOW: necessary! I have an English degree and got my butt-kicked over comma splices, so I try to get rid of them as much as possible.

  5. I didn't know that's what it was called -- a serial comma! I think I overuse it, though. Can't wait to read the rest of the guide!

  6. Terrific. I've been trying to explain the comma thing but just didn't have the words-
    "to show the personality of the speaker" -on the tip of my tongue.

  7. I like commas. Commas are good. I find that my students abuse dashes the most. Too many dashes on a page drives me nuts. Your book sounds like something many of us could use! Good luck with it!

  8. Thanks for this wonderfully clear explanation. I'm a supporter of the serial comma, also, and will encourage my students to read this post.

  9. So many writers get bogged down on nitpicking commas with editors because they're focused too much on the rules in the grammar book instead of on the tone and feel of the resulting sentence.

    Excellent post, and required reading for writers. I can't wait to see the whole book. :)

  10. I hadn't heard of the serial comma. I've wanted to place the pause in there before the "and" sometimes but had been taught,in high school I guess, that it didn't belong. Good to know.

  11. Sorry, I'm coming in a bit late for this. In the Hunger Games example that you give, shouldn't there be a semicolon or a period after the first two independent clauses? As in: I will stare her down. I will not cry out. I will die, in my own small way, undefeated. I was under the impression that using a comma to separate independent clauses was incorrect.

  12. Cool post. I believe that punctuation is a guidepost, and should be used to help readers understand--even if you have to bend rules occasionally.

    As for comma splices (two complete sentences stuck together with only a comma), I hate them. However, I think they're okay occasionally, when, according to Strunk and White, the sentences involved are short and similar in structure. What I hate are when people use them not in the above case, not to increase tension and breathlessness as is the Hunger Games example, but when the author just doesn't know what he's doing. I LOVED the Hunger Games, but my one criticism: way too many comma splices. Even to increase tension, I think "occasional" is the key word for this device. She went way beyond occasional. Still, I loved the book so much I didn't care.