I did receive some suggestions of better titles for this post, most involving puns that I’ll leave to your imagination (think Shakespeare, Mackenzie King, 80s music, and—inevitably—Sanskrit). But since comma jokes are too easy, I am just going to stick with a boring, descriptive title.
One of the reasons that I have put off discussing commas for as long as I have is the obvious fact that there is so much to be said. In the face of such an extensive issue, it can be hard to sort out what actually needs to be said. In the classroom, I often address this problem by starting with a segment dedicated to ‘what I wish people knew about the topic at hand’. In order to prepare those remarks, I have to think hard about what I repeatedly see in student writing. Once I have figured that out, I am able to focus on discussing things that I know to be troublesome rather than on confronting the topic from all possible angles.
So what do I wish people knew about commas?
1. That understanding comma use in compound sentences—which involves understanding coordinating conjunctions—is crucial.
2. That comma use has to be more than just a response to the length of a sentence.
3. That commas come in two varieties: solitary and paired. When we use only half of a pair of commas, we create confusion.
4. That grasping how restrictive and non-restrictive elements work is essential to using commas well.
5. That comma use can be influenced by discipline.
6. That the decision about whether to use the serial comma should not be taken lightly.
I hope that these six points will work as six distinct posts. The first step, in a future post, will be to look at comma use in compound sentences. Stopping here—before getting anywhere near the nitty-gritty of commas—is wrong, I know. And I would love to dive right in, but the way commas function within compound sentences is far too important to be tucked away at the tail end of this post. If you take that as a roundabout way of saying that I just didn’t have time to write a comprehensive post on comma use in compound sentences this week, I’m okay with that.