I've recently been engaged on multiple fronts in a far-too-common discourse for me: comma usage. For one, there's the continual struggle with my students over the ever-more-ubiquitous comma splice (e.g., "I went to the store, the bread smelled good"), which I fear is on its way to such common usage that it's no longer even considered bad grammar.
But before I seem like too much of a snob let me just say that, to my mind at least, the comma's primary function is still what it was since its inception: a time marker. Recently while critiquing my friend Cheryl Wright-Watkins's work, I found myself frequently commenting that she should remove a comma here, or add a comma there. After awhile, I felt the need to explain:
My reasoning is that the comma cues the reader to make a slight pause, sometimes because something is important, sometimes to separate words or thoughts that might get jumbled, sometimes because grammar/mechanics dictate it. I think you’re perhaps overusing the comma because you think certain points need to be held for a second, or perhaps made explicit to the reader. But you have to remember that the flipside of this is that every comma disrupts the flow of the writing, so you have to decide (in my opinion, at least) with each comma whether it’s more important to belabor a point or to keep the reader moving. This is of course a somewhat instinctive thing, and I’ll say here that I’m simply marking while reading when I feel like 1) you’re telling me to pause when I don’t want to, or 2) your pause isn’t long enough, thus the ultimate endgame: the period. (Sorry if I got a little dramatic there.)
My friend Richard Slade, a talented tenor with a wonderfully caustic sense of humor, wrote the following haiku to his Facebook page yesterday:
Purring cat on lap/twenty minutes til gym time/sorry cat must go
To which I couldn't help replying, with a bit of Eats, Shoots & Leaves humor:
Did you mean, "Sorry cat, must go" or "Sorry, cat must go"?
And then today, Cheryl emailed me the link to a list essay (perhaps my favorite form of nonfiction) published today on McSweeney's, "The Comma from Which My Heart Hangs," an ostensible grammar lesson on comma usage that doubles as a breakup song. To wit:
4. Commas, in coordination with a conjunction, are also essential when making comparisons and contradictions. For instance:
“I’d call you cold hearted, but you’re clearly heartless,” Benjamin said.
“You might call yourself an academic, but you’re the only one who cares what you think,” she said.
This is all to say - well, not much. But just try reading that last sentence without the comma. Or - god forbid - without the dash. Did I mention how important dashes are?