Most Read: Opinions

direct signup

Today’s Opinions poll

Would you use an app that tells you the partisan affiliation of products you're considering buying?

Submit
Next
Review your answers and share
ComPost
About Petri |  Get Updates: On Twitter ComPost on Twitter |  On Facebook Petri on Facebook |  RSS RSS
Posted at 08:14 PM ET, 05/22/2012

The Comma Sutra — bad grammar advice

Where on earth are we supposed to put commas?

No one on the Internet seems to know.

Type “I don’t know where to put” into Google and “commas” is the fifth suggestion.

We’re all lost and adrift, or lost, and adrift, or lost,,,,,, and,,, adrift.

(When I’m misusing commas I like to throw as many in as possible so that they will have each other for companionship until someone comes by to remove them.)

Ah, grammar. As the Reverend Peter Gomes used to say, it’s not who you know, it’s whom. If there is one thing we can all agree on, as a nation, it is that we are not certain whether we should have put that comma there.

Commas are like forks. For the most part, it is obvious what to do with them and where to put them. But then sometimes you find yourself confronted with six or seven of varying shapes and functions and have to try not to grab the wrong one in order to avoid awkward pauses.

You look over at your neighbor, who is artfully braiding them into a semicolon. Then you stand there nervously with your comma waiting for an opening. Finally you nestle it between two rapidly passing clauses and hope that they are the right clauses.

Every guide I see to commas just makes them more confusing. “Use them to produce pauses after unique items!” “Use them after FANBOYS, the conjunctions FOR AND NOR BUT OR YET SO!” “Sound it out! Sound it out and see if it seems necessary!” This just leads to an awkward few minutes as you sit in front of your computer silently mouthing words.

I am a fan of Oxford commas, but The Post is not. I believe in using them indiscriminately, exuberantly, and often. Oxford commas are like regular commas, but they prevent you from making canonical mistakes like inviting the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

There are some places you definitely should not put commas, like in a tattoo on your lower back, or right by the entrance to your apartment so you trip over them when you come in.

You used frequently to see outside churches signs that said, “Never put a period where God has put a comma,” which I thought was presumptuous, especially if it were one of those cases where the good Lord was using a comma splice by mistake.

Sometimes commas go off and form ill-advised alliances with periods and turn into semicolons.

This is awkward for everyone involved, especially during the first few weeks of the alliance when the comma and period are inseparable and keep draping themselves over each other in public.

But there are three major mistakes, according to the New York Times, that people make with commas, other than allowing a comma that has been drinking heavily to drive them somewhere.

In identification.

Apparently, you are supposed to use commas when you come across something unique.

Since everyone and everything is unique these days, I have started liberally frosting everything in commas. “There goes a college, graduate, who is going to give the world a great, humorous memoir book like they sell at Urban Outfitters,.”

No wonder this is confusing.

A better way of putting this would be, “The Batman always takes a comma.”

There is only one Batman, so if you are writing about The Batman, Bruce Wayne, you have to use a comma.

You can’t say, “The Batman Bruce Wayne,” or “The Highlander Connor MacLeod,” because there are not multiple Batmen and there can be only be one.

In general, put a comma after the Batman. It shows respect.

Sometimes people forget commas after parenthetical phrases.

It’s an easy mistake to make, like failing to turn off the lights when you leave the house.

Someone once told me to think of a comma as a lock and a paranthetical phrase as something harmless but embarrassing that you wouldn’t just leave open for people to find. This has only been somewhat helpful. Before leaving your parenthetical phrase, even a phrase as pointless as this one, make certain to put a comma at the end. Otherwise vagrants might come in and rearrange your clauses when you are not looking!

Don’t use commas to splice sentences together.

Unless — as the Times points out — you’re Samuel Beckett.

Then, pretty much do whatever you would like to do.

In fact, the only solution to most grammar problems is to become a very famous writer, because at that point people start thinking that your grammar is bad on purpose. Look at Faulkner or James Joyce, who didn’t even bother spelling actual words.

In the mean time, here are some commas in their natural habitat.


By  |  08:14 PM ET, 05/22/2012

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company