A Pause to Consider the Commas of the Field

After our last couple of relatively weighty topics, I thought that today, I might take up something simple. I want to spend just a few minutes discussing one of English’s many comma rules. We have so many of them, and honestly, some of them make more sense than others. Today’s is one of the more basic ones, but I want to address it today because I am still marking it on manuscripts.

You must place a comma between segments of a compound sentence.

When I was first exposed to the rapture that is the study of commas (this was at about the time when the crust of the earth was cooling), we were forced to just memorize all the places the comma was supposed to go. And we liked it! We sat around the fire pit and celebrated the many, many rules!

After that, I moved on to my first job. I was a girl reporter, switching from the formal rules set down in antiquity to the rules in the AP Stylebook. With a cigar-chomping news editor yelling himself red-faced at the corner of one’s desk, one does not have time to celebrate the many, many comma rules. I had to fall back on the Comma Guideline: Place a comma wherever you would pause for breath as you read this sentence aloud.

Today’s rule is an offshoot of that. In most instances, the natural tendency is to pause between segments of the compound sentence. Observe:

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine. Song of Solomon 6:3.

We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail. George W. Bush, September 21, 2001

Simple enough, right? I suspect that confusion on this front comes from two sources.

  1. This is not the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is used at the end of a list of elements, and it’s the subject of some of English’s most acrimonious debates. In this sentence, I will (reluctantly) use the Oxford comma to say that in my weekly bout of office cleaning, I found five ponytail holders, the entire first draft of a short story, and enough cat hair to make a sweater. The Oxford comma doesn’t separate whole independent clauses, so no matter how you feel about the Oxford comma, the compound sentence comma is mandatory. With one inevitable exception.
  2. One need not separate independent clauses with a comma if they are short. The question then becomes (or it should become), “How short is short?” I used to use a hard and fast rule: Six words constitutes short. Then I started reporting. You should have seen my editor when he saw me counting those words. The word “aneurysm” rises to mind. You’ll notice that in my two examples, I used the commas, despite the fact that all the segments are only four words long. That’s because the natural tendency is to pause at the comma. (The comma between “tire” and “we” in the second sentence is mandatory in any case; the sentence is unreadable without it.) The comma separates some pretty heavy stuff up there. Stylistically, I think you’re better off to leave it in and challenge someone to find a reason to remove it.

As is often the case in this fabulous editorial world of ours, house rules will vary, and we will all bend in our own way to make the grade wherever we end up. But even in today’s tech-driven world, few things wow an editor like the application of formal grammar and punctuation rules. It’s the razor-sharp crease that makes an expensive suit look even more expensive. And it keeps your editor from having an aneurysm at the corner of your desk. What more could you want?

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.


2 thoughts on “A Pause to Consider the Commas of the Field

  • Sigh. As you well know, Ms Lexi, I am comma deficient. I wonder if it might be in the DNA? Thankfully, I’ve had you to point out my deficiencies, and to add where applicable. I agree that the various stylebooks add to the general confusion and the overall brouhaha, but more probably IS better. Additionally, I have used the “comma pause” rule with mixed success. One takes one’s best shot, eh?

    • You know, not everyone was subjected to the rigorous training that goes with the Sacred Way of Shaolin Comma Placement. It’s far from intuitive. I had lots of help from years of meditation on the one hand and years of being yelled at by mercurial city desk editors on the other.

      But yeah, one takes one’s best shot. What else can one do? 🙂

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