Sunday, January 23, 2011

Despite what you might have been told, commas are still necessary

I frequently rail about comma usage, and this post will be a continuation of that particular obsession of mine. But, don't stop reading! I have a great example.

I am currently reading a law journal article about legal education before 1860, and I came across this sentence:

"By the time of the Revolution English law had come to be generally well regarded and each colony had a bar of trained, able, and respected professionals..." 

That is punctuated exactly as I found it. But one of the most important goals in writing, is to make sure that whatever you put down on paper does not cause the reader to stumble. You always want to avoid having the reader go through your sentence and say, "huh?" But that's exactly what I did when I read "Revolution English law." What on earth is that, I wondered. Then I realized that the writer and copy editor neglected to place an important comma. 

By now, I'm sure you know where I'm going with this. The opening part of the sentence should have been:

"By the time of the Revolution, English law had come..." 

This is why I'm always harping to students to put a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. That's where--if you were speaking--you would have taken a pause. So, because we read pretty much the way we're used to hearing our language spoken, we need that comma. Otherwise, we wind up with a sentence that sounds as if it's talking about "Revolution English law." 


Steve Mc said...

That is a clear example because the comma does so much to change the meaning.

But I just wrote this sentence: A 1932 NYS publication devoted to the life of George Washington, with the anachronistic Pledge and the apocraphyl story of Betsy Ross.

That comma seemed correct when I was writing, but now it doesn't. I think of a comma as a pause, and when a sentence goes long I always feel like there should be a pause. That is how we speak.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and clearly we should strive to write as we speak since that will be most clear to our reader. But, I'm a bit puzzled since the sentence you wrote above is not a complete sentence. If you had written instead:

This was a 1932 publication devoted to the life of George Washington, with the anachronistic Pledge and the apocraphyl story of Betsy Ross

then it would have been a complete sentence. But you don't need a comma where you've put it. Please see my earlier postings on comma usage. Now, having said all that, the sentence might be more clear and easy to understand if you included the "complete" before the word "with."

Or am I missing your meaning? That's entirely possible!