I’ve been thinking about writing this one for quite a while, but I’ve just had a lot of other stuff going on.
But I can’t stay silent anymore. We need to talk about a serious issue that’s impeding our ability to have the simplest of conversations.
No, I’m not talking about the fraying political discourse.
I’m talking about a tiny, useful piece of punctuation that two-thirds of the internet has apparently forgotten how to use.
It is the comma. The brave little toaster of the punctuation family. Stalwart, unassuming, and essential.
When did web writers decide the comma was just an annoying interruption? That they could just leave most of them out, because no one cares about that stuff now?
And then — as if regretting their previous poor choices — sprinkle a few commas randomly on top, perhaps to make it look more … punctuate-y.
Please, please my dear fellow writers, knock it off
When you leave out the commas, particularly if you then throw a couple of random ones in there, your content runs the risk of looking uninformed, silly … or just plain confusing.
“Do you love dogs the planet your flag and country babies justice equality freedom?”
That’s a quote from a recent post of mine, with the commas in a list tragically ripped away.
That one’s a little extreme, since it’s a list of nouns. Notice, though, how you’re not sure which words belong together. Is it “country babies?” “Equality freedom?”
I see only slightly less extreme versions of this in content every day.
Sentences I need to re-read to figure out which words go together. Sentences that stop me in the middle, like that horrible person who brakes in the middle of the street to read a text. And sentences that just seem to be running out of breath.
I love what Ursula Le Guin had to say about punctuation in her book on narrative, Steering the Craft:
“… punctuation tells the reader ‘how to hear’ our writing. That’s what it’s for. Commas and periods bring out the grammatical structure of a sentence; they make it clear to the understanding, and the emotions, by showing what it sounds like — where the breaks come, where to pause.”
Take the last bit of that and strip away the punctuation. Notice how hard it gets to understand:
they make it clear to the understanding and the emotions by showing what it sounds like where the breaks come where to pause
Getting your punctuation in order isn’t about making English teachers happy. (Although that, also, is a worthy goal.)
It’s about making your writing clearer, more pleasing, and easier to read.
Does punctuation matter in “conversational” copy?
Some writers feel that the rules of punctuation will make their writing stuffy. Better to just “write like I talk,” and let the voice make a connection.
I think learning to write like you talk is a magnificent goal. It’s not always easy to learn.
Getting a really good grasp on punctuation allows you to write more like you talk, by giving the reader a simple way to understand the structure of each sentence.
If you’re writing content for any kind of purpose — for clients, to support your business, or even to promote a hobby or other personal goal — your words have to find the right place in your audience’s ears. Punctuation helps that happen naturally and painlessly.
A special note for professional writers
Those of us who write for a living have an additional obligation.
If you’re the designated scribe for someone else, it’s your responsibility to make that person or company look amazing.
When professional writers get sloppy about commas and other punctuation, they make their clients or their organizations look ill-educated and careless. And that’s not okay.
How to polish your skills
You were probably a lot less geeky than I was when you were in 9th grade. Nearly everyone was.
We’re lucky to live in the 21st century, with a bunch of useful resources to help us fill in those gaps.
The best option is probably to hire a good proofreader (or possibly even an off-duty English teacher) to look over your work and find the errors. If this person is really wonderful, they can explain the errors to you, so you’re less likely to make them again.
That’s not workable for everyone, and — this will strike some as heresy — I have no problem with writers using a tool like Grammarly to help find missing commas (and get rid of the ones that are there for no reason).
Early automated usage and grammar correctors were pretty dumb. They tended to introduce a lot of errors and mark perfectly acceptable usage as incorrect.
The new tools, like Grammarly, are smarter. But they’re still not perfect, and that brings us to the next point …
Develop a solid understanding of punctuation rules
If Grammarly or your proofreader flags a missing comma and you don’t understand why, take a minute or two and figure it out.
You can check websites like Grammar Girl, or books like The Well-Tempered Sentence or The Elements of Style Illustrated. (A friend just turned me on to the illustrated version of that classic, and it’s a charmer.)
You can hire a tutor for an hour or two. Or get on Facebook and find out which of your friends were English majors.
I wouldn’t get too hung up on a specific style. In 2018, it doesn’t matter much whether you prefer AP Style or Chicago, or how you feel about the serial comma. Just be consistent and deliberate with your choices.
And for the love of your country your faith mom apple pie democracy kittens and everything else that is decent and right and good please get some commas into your blog posts before I have some kind of an unfortunate brain event.
(And for my compatriots, have a terrific Fourth!)