Commas: Punctuating for Length

This post is the second in a series of posts on comma use. The first post dealt with commas and coordinating conjunctions.

Today’s topic is the practice of putting commas in sentences as a response to the length of the sentence. Consider this example:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment, and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

The comma after ‘treatment’ is, as your grammar book will tell you, unnecessary. Indeed, putting a comma there might cause some readers to think that ‘focus on exploring’ is the start of an independent clause. To illustrate the redundancy of this comma, consider the same punctuation pattern in a very simple sentence:

I went to the store for milk, and eggs.

This sentence will look wrong to most of us since it separates ‘milk’ and ‘eggs’ when they are obviously meant to go together. There is no reason for a comma between ‘I went to the store for’ and ‘eggs’. We wouldn’t say ‘I went to the store for, eggs’. (We would, however, say, ‘I went to the store for milk, eggs, and avocados’ because we punctuate lists of three or more items differently than we do pairs. For more on lists, see here, here, and here.)

What, then, do we think about the comma usage in our first example? The grammar books suggest it is wrong. The analogy with a short sentence suggests that it is wrong. (Of course, I would certainly acknowledge that it is possible to refuse the logic that says ‘wrong in a short sentence, therefore wrong in a long sentence’. In fact, we do sometimes use punctuation differently in short and long sentences; Veni, vidi, vici invariably comes up in such discussions.) But whether it is wrong or not, this is a pattern of comma use that you will see in lots of respectable places.

My response to this uncertainty is to characterize this usage as non-standard rather than as wrong. This assessment alerts students to the fact that the usage may be ambiguous for some readers and may be out of place in some sentences. However, to me, the most salient thing about this type of comma use is that it is generally better to leave it in place than to remove it without further alteration of the sentence. Simply removing it may make your sentence more ‘correct’ but will likely also make it harder to read. Let’s look at our first example again, now with the non-standard comma removed:

The purpose of these focus groups was to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

You can immediately see that this isn’t a good solution. The new sentence is much harder to read and, in fact, some might even read ‘outpatient treatment and focus’ as a single phrase and thus become confused about the sentence structure. What are our options when a pattern of comma usage isn’t standard and yet removing the comma only makes things worse?

The simplest revision would look something like this:

The purpose of these focus groups was both to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

Using ‘both’ serves to alert the reader that a pair is coming; since the reader is expecting the writer to offer a dual purpose, the reader will be anticipating a compound structure. The repetition of the ‘to’ (‘both to improve and to focus’) will be another hint to the reader as to how to read the sentence. Notice all the ‘ands’ in our example sentence; repeating an element like ‘to’ signals to the reader which ‘and’ is doing the heavy lifting.

Another option would be to restructure the sentence so that it explicitly anticipates the two purposes:

These focus groups had two main purposes: to improve the understanding of the nature of risk and autonomy during outpatient treatment and to focus on exploring the role of the hospital and the professional team in identifying and balancing treatment efficacy and patient comfort.

In this case, the reader encounters ‘to improve’ and then ‘to focus’ with a prior understanding that there are two purposes; by providing that explicit information, the writer makes very certain that the reader will know how to read the sentence. The only downside to this structure is the possibility that it could overemphasize something that might actually be trivial:

The trip to the store had two main purposes: milk and eggs.

But in our original example, the writer seems to be giving important information about the current research, suggesting that the extra emphasis provided by the colon is warranted.

In sum, I think it is valuable to be aware of this pattern of comma use as non-standard. With that knowledge, you may go on using the comma in this way or you may choose to rephrase. My point is that, in many cases, the optimal solution won’t be to remove this comma without also altering the sentence in other ways. In some cases, of course, simple removal will work, but in more cases, when we punctuate for length, we are responding to a valuable intuition that the sentence won’t work without some additional aid for the reader.

Our next comma post will look at the importance of understanding when a comma can stand alone and when it needs a partner.

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