Lately I've run into people having problems with comma use, and in my live workshop someone said 'no one knows how to use those things anyway'. I love this excerpt from a punctuation book so much that I wanted to share it with folks here.
It illustrates how to make a single sentence with 111 words work:
quote: Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence alof all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots...you stop.
-Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Nice. Poets tend to shy away from periods and revert to commas because of the nature of poetry. Periods slop the fluidity of poems so that, often, the writer will rearrange the poem so that it goes on forever with only commas, ultimately ending with a single period, or they will just write with no periods even when they should. What's more, many contemporary poets rarely end stanzas with periods because it stops the motion of jumping from stanza to stanza. There are a lot of poems that are just a single run on sentence, some of which end up being one or more pages long.
commas are definitely the bane of all existance. I have tried being very sticklery with the rules about them and most often I'm told that I use too many. My conslusion on the matter is that commas are like all punctuation, they are there to clear up confusion. If a sentence does not have confusion. It does not have to have punctuation, especially commas.
Not to say don't use commas, but only use them to avoid confusion, not because a rule says to use it. Kind of like all the rules. "The end." Should not be a sentence by any rule, but it is a complete thought (based on what came before) even though it has no verb.
I have to agree, I think I use commas more than I should. It's something I've been paying more attention to recently to help with sentence flow.
That said, nothing jars me out of reading more than a misplaced comma, or one that should be there but isn't. I especially hate it when people put the comma after a conjunction, like "Jason was going to the grocery store and, while he was there picked up a cabbage."
In its most basic form, the comma is a pause button. If your prose needs a pause and doesn't naturally have one, it probably needs a comma. Conversely, say PAUSE for each comma you suspect as surplus, and if that sounds funny, it probably doesn't belong.
My thoughts are that a comma is a hybrid between the whitespace that exists between two words, and the period. It allows the reader to pause for breath like the period, but maintains the contiguity of the sentence, like whitespace.
[This message has been edited by Osiris (edited May 21, 2011).]
Been trying to remember too get a link from my blog and finally have.
I have been having huge problems with commas, usually going back and forth from not enough to too many back to not enough. Anyway, I wrote a post about a new grammar book I have. Someone left me a link to this site.
Interesting thing is that they have a comma game you can play. As amazing as some people around here may think it is, I scored very high on the game. I may have missed just two. I say may have because the correct or missed words stay up only for a second. Two went by so quick I couldn't read them.