Loved this article, Jennifer. There are so many nuances to writing. I don't think I've ever thought about the lowly comma in this way before.
Commas: Thinking Beyond a Pause
We think of commas as pauses, but they are so much more! Knowing how to use commas will improve your writing.
However, thinking of them in this vague way can breed ignorance about the rules of English writing, thus causing mistakes. But more importantly, this ignorance stifles the possibilities in our writing -- i.e. the development of our thinking on paper.
If someone writes, "Peaches, which are best with angel food cake and cream, are my favorite fruit," that person wants to showcase the middle thought between the pauses. In this case, the comma is used correctly, but for a different reason beyond a "pause," however unintended: Commas are used to set off relative clauses.
A relative clause is an aside that usually starts with relative pronouns like "which," "that," and "who." When you take out the relative clause, you will still get a complete sentence. For example, if you take out the clause, "which are the best with angel food cake and cream," you will get, "Peaches are my favorite fruit."
As you can see, the hindrance with thinking of commas only as pauses is that the other uses of commas in writing are lost. After all, writing comes with its own set of rules. Think beyond the pause, and you will be more adept at writing in general because commas enable you to write confidently with different sentence structures.
A writer who can use a variety of sentence structures in their texts will achieve the ability to write for different audiences. For instance, very young audiences appreciate simple sentences with very few relative or dependent clauses (read further) since their attention span is shorter. Commas, when used for the youngest reader, are used to mark a list, as in "Peter ate a sandwich, a cookie, and a candy cane."
Readers who are older or more experienced with the nuances of thought and language appreciate texts that use at least some compound and complex sentences.
Beyond the use of commas to distinguish relative clauses, writers use commas to indicate other things, all of which can help you make your writing more sophisticated. Here are just a few:
1. A comma can mark the end of an initial dependent clause: "Because the room did not have a window, I felt claustrophobic." A dependent clause is a thought that is not complete as to make an independent sentence on its own. The comma here is more than a pause: in tandem with the word "because," it tells the reader that there is a consequence to the previous action.
2. A comma can mark the beginning of an additional verb phrase relating to the subject: "The scooter jumped the curb, cutting through the air with a 'whoosh.' " The comma here is more than a pause: it tells the reader that there is more detail to be had about the scooter.
3. A comma can mark an additional independent clause after a conjunction: "Jim went for pizza, and Susan went swimming." An independent clause can stand alone as a complete sentence, as in "Susan went swimming." The use of the comma here acts as more than a pause: without it, the reader may initially think that Jim went for pizza and Susan, which would slow comprehension. The comma acts a a signal here that the next noun is also a subject.
Learn more about the author, Jennifer Pacheco.
Comment on this article
- Add tags to make this article more relevant.