Sunday 5 September 2010

Come'on! Commas: Where don't they go?


I used to think they could be used, or not, depending on how you felt, the rhythm and the affect, sort-of a cross between art and breathing, rather than hard and fast rules for use.

I get lost somewhere between absolute and parenthetical.

I have this piece by Gertrude Stein, appropriated, during research, from the Grammar.ccc site pinned up on my notice board:

And what does a comma do, a comma does nothing but make easy a thing that if you like it enough is easy enough without the comma. A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.
So that is the way I felt about punctuation in prose, in poetry it is a little different but more so …

It helps with the confusion ;)


  1. Hi Elaine,
    I came over by way of Karen's BBQ,
    Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Only the comma knows.
    A new follower.
    Wanna buy a duck

  2. Hi Manzanita
    Thanks for stopping by and following.
    Always great to have guests around. ;)
    Duck, fine. Geese and swans? SPAWN!!!

  3. I sometimes like the comma, for sentences you want to be winding, when you want to contradict the first part of a sentence, and, for list items. But, I agree whenever possible you should just tighten the sentence. :-)

  4. I like this a lot. I'm guilty of comma-overuse, but I think Gertrude Stein nails it merely by demonstrating why they are unnecessary. Great post, Elaine!

  5. I overuse commas. Sometimes I have a love-hate relationship with them. I'll delete, add, delete them in the same sentence. I can't make up my mind.

  6. Hi Charmaine
    I read back over sentences, where commas separate the clauses, and wonder where the heck I thought I was going! ;:

    I vacillate when it comes to Gertrude, sometimes when I read the paragraph,often when I'm tired, by the time I get to the end of it I find it makes no sense at all!

    Hi Medeia
    Isn't it odd how differently the same sentence reads, when you return to it later? I've re-read, re-ordered and re-comma-ed sentences multiple times, without ever changing a word.;)

  7. What of the 12 year old who said to me in class the other day, and I quote:

    'I don't know what a comma is ...'

    This person hasn't even got to the problem you speak of, poor thing.

  8. Hi Waving
    I was twelve when I fist suggested that I didn't know what a comma was. What is a comma? Shape, form, function: it has them all, but, really, what is a comma?
    Do you think he meant it that way? That boy is an existentialist thinker ;)