Do, you, like, to, use, commas, as, if, they, are, running, out, of, style? I don’t like commas and I avoid them.

My students, on the other hand, as well as many amateur authors, use commas as if they were free by the bushelful and need to be crammed into every bramble and sigh. I never add a comma before an “and” though many people employ a comma there.

Karl Shapiro Here’s why: I was taught — by the great poet, editor, friend and Pulitzer Prize winner Karl Shapiro — to only use minimal punctuation and only when it was urgently required for clarification.

Karl used to say to me: “A comma before ‘and’ is repetitive because the ‘and’ is already serving the separating role of the comma.”

“Commas are not stitches in corset,” Karl would also tell me.

“Commas are bonnets and if your sentence is wearing more than one you risk looking silly.”

Karl’s writing was about brevity and clarity and condensation of belief all while churning up deep and complicated emotional and intellectual reactions in his readers.

I have used Karl Shapiro’s sage words over the last three decades to redirect me to safer and cleaner writing when I sometimes become lost in the land of commas and semi-colons and the overwrought metaphor.

Grammar is an interesting beast. You must learn and master its rules.

Then, like the great James Joyce before us, you can sometimes withdraw from Grammar’s restraints and provide newer meaning and extended definition by challenging readers to insert and re-semanticize what was purposefully left out.

34 Comments

  1. Interesting you should decry overuse of the comma. In my experience, people tend not to use them. It is sometimes difficult to follow the meaning and flow of sentences that do not have commas.
    It doesn’t surprise me that a poet would advocate minimal punctuation. Different meanings are intimated by use or non-use of punctuation, not to mention line breaks.
    Last semester, I was writing a group project paper. One of my teammates called me to discuss a section that I had written. He objected to my use of commas. I agreed to read through and simplify some of my sentence structures, thereby eliminating the need for commmas. No – he wanted me to replace them with hyphens!

  2. Hi Antoinette —
    In my world commas are all around the place. It seems the one thing many young college students take away from high school English is to add commas everywhere to their writing to make it look important. Teaching them to delete the unnecessary commas is a hard lesson for them to learn.
    Karl Shapiro’s poetry was punctuated perfectly. If you click on the first link for him and then click on the “Poem” button you’ll see what I mean.

  3. I can usually cope with commas, but my real problem is these little dots …….. I tend to write as I speak and the dots are where I would stop for breath. If I have to write or post anything more formally I get my partner to proof read it first.
    This maybe because when I speak my whole body moves with my words, my hands express and expand on the points I am trying to make.

  4. I’m, with, you, David, on, not, using, commas, like, they, are, going, out, of, style.
    Too, many,commas, can, be, very, distracting, to, the, reader, if, used, improperly.
    Despite my opposition to hyper-comma usage, I’m all for greater usage of the semi-colon; wouldn’t it be great if people used them more!
    ;
    Isn’t that beautiful!

  5. Excellent,, idea,, to,, add,, extra,, comments,, to,, increase,, the,, effectiveness,, of,, ones,, writing!
    I was never great at diagramming in English grammar class and could never under what the French teacher was talking about when she kept mentioning Pluperfect subjunctive tense, but I do know that there are a lot of people who aren’t writing very well! I think if I would have had ADD medicine back in high school, I probably would have understood some of the finer points of grammar.
    Despite my limitations, I would have never thought about adding two (2) commas to anything to “add more effect” to my writing. I think my teachers would have cut off my hands if I had tried something like that.
    I think a lot of basic writing problems arise because people aren’t reading enough to be able to recognize when they aren’t writing the right way.

  6. Hi Chris!
    I agree there is a certain lack of care when it comes to tending young minds. Some of it is the circumstance of non-support from a school administration and then there’s parental pressure that forces students to “keep up” with their peers when they’d be better served being held back a year or two to polish up their study skills.
    I had one graduating college student who wanted to share a paper with me from a different class she took after I gave her a “B” grade — quite a fine grade, too, for the work she handed in — and the paper she showed me was printed in 10 different colors and five different fonts. There were no complete sentences. The grade on her paper was “A+++++++++++++++++++” written just like that on the page and there wasn’t even an “A+” grade in the system.
    How do you explain to a furious student that a ridiculous grade like that is irresponsible and it cheats the student? Students do not care. They only want to be told how precious they are in the world and if you don’t agree with an “A+,,+,,+,,+,,+,,+,,+” grade then you’re stupid and hateful.

  7. Grades don’t mean anything when everyone in the top 75% of the class has an A+ average.
    Of course, I got screwed “back in the good old days” and only received “Gentlemen’s Cs” on those couple of occassions when I deserved worse.
    I wonder if an “A” without the “+” marks is really the “Gentlemen’s C” of the 1980s?

  8. LOL. More is better, right?
    I’m not convinced it is a lack of care necessarily. Some people do not consider writing or correct grammar to be very important. We had a big argument about this at work one day. One person thought that it should be acceptable for students to write for school the way they do in the rest of their lives, meaning IM short hand (R U, etc.).
    Also in my consideration are the notices that my boyfriend’s middle school children bring home from school, written by their teachers. The grammar is atrocious, the use of punctuation equally so. In addition, there is a routine misuse of homophones (“their” instead of “they’re” for example). I get an almost irresistable urge to correct them in red pen and send them back.
    While I’m on a roll, one punctuation that I see overused
    is ‘s (apostrophe s). It started out with “it’s” being used instead of “its,” but now I see all sorts of words ending in s written as ‘s. (There were swing’s at the playground.) I have seen this misuse in marketing materials and publications, in addition to the daily writing and emails that I read.

  9. Chris —
    I agree grades are meaningless and I am in full support of “Pass/No Pass” grades for all students. You show up and do the work and you pass. If you don’t do the work, you fail.
    I think an “A” is meaningless to students while anything at a “B” or below is the end of the world.

  10. Hi Antoinette —
    If “anything goes” in writing we soon will not be able to understand each other. Grammar rules and structure create expectation and frame comprehension in that one thing follows another. That is how we ground context in a culture. The dissolving of our cultural grammar in the slang of the street becomes the very end of a society in which words have meaning and deeds speak for character.
    I find the people who usually advocate the “anything goes” system of learning are likely to be those who cannot master the standard rules of educational systems and basic grammar so they become revolutionaries against the norm and they want to fight the majority rule because they cannot be part of the mainstream power structure. If you can’t join and build – then tear down:
    http://urbansemiotic.com/2005/12/06/tearing-down-goodness/
    I would complain about the poor English of those teaching the children you mention. If you stay silent aren’t you as guilty as the one who wrote the incomprehensible? Bad things happen when good people don’t get involved in matters that might get ugly or sticky. Good is never easy. Lazy and bad are their own bedbugs.
    The it’s/its and their/they’re issues are failures of teaching and learning. There are simple rules set and sometimes people just have to memorize them if they don’t make sense on the face of the matter.
    The most misspelled world in the blogosphere is “rediculous” for “ridiculous” — I see it about five times a day and each time the person who misspelled the word is trying to be worldly or superior and in all matters failed miserably.

  11. David, there are so many things wrong with this school, that this problem is actually minor compared to the rest. The kids don’t want to bring the papers back because they feel that the teacher will hold it against them. The assistant principal told me it is not his job to instruct the teachers! I could bring the corrected papers back for a parent-teacher conference, but I think that could get rather confrontational… and we aren’t there due to stellar performance on the part of the children. Maybe I’ll save them all up for the English teacher.
    Did I mention that the principal and the teachers treat us (adults) as if we are complete morons? Also, I am not the biological mother and the school sees me as having no valid standing. The biological mother (who does not have custody) has also involved herself in a “non-productive way” shall we say.
    You are correct, of course. On the other hand, I need to pick my battles. This one seems a contentious, futile situation, with nothing changing as a result of any action. We pulled one child out of the school last year, since he is old enough for “school choice” and enrolled him in the public school a few towns over. The teachers there seem much more interested in teaching.

  12. I feel for you Antoinette, but I weep for the children in that school. If all the parents did the right thing and moved them or made noise or sued the district for incompetence things might change a bit for the better.
    I was thinking more about the “anything goes” group that thinks street slang is appropriate for formal written communication.
    Here are three sentences that all have similar sounds but very different meanings depending on one’s cultural background and educational training:
    “Yo, dawg!”
    “Ya dawg!”
    “Your dog.”
    I hope we can keep the spoken street slang in the gutter where it belongs and keep the clearer and cleaner “proper English” in the classroom and workplace.