Written by Martin Wiles
As authors and writers, we can’t control what publishers and editors do with commas, but let’s not throw them out completely.
In the publishing industry, as it relates to the comma, the current trend is less is more. As an English teacher, I’m still hanging on to the old-school philosophy of teaching my students to put commas in places from which a publisher or editor might remove them. But as an editor, I must follow the style guides of the place I’m editing for.
Let’s set the standard: commas are important. And at least for two reasons.
First, commas prevent misreading. My all-time favorite is “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.” Without the comma, Grandma—whoever she is—faces a dilemma. With the comma, we know someone is directly speaking to Grandma.
Another example is reflected in the following compound sentence: “I chose the colors red and green, and blue was his first choice.” Without the comma, blue might be associated with red and green—which actually belong to an entirely different sentence—but with the comma, we know blue begins a new sentence.
One place from which commas are disappearing is following short adverbial and adjectival prepositional phrases when they begin a sentence. Recently, I was reading a book published by a noted publisher when I noticed their comma usage. Two different sentences on the same page had short adverbial prepositional phrases at the beginning of a sentence. On one, the editors chose to insert a comma; on the other, they chose to omit it. I saw no difference in either sentence.
I teach my students to place commas the old-fashioned way. If the editor chooses to remove some, so be it. At least, the acquisition or proof editor will know the writer knows how to use grammar correctly, which in the end will benefit the writer more.
Second, commas—and all forms of punctuation—guide our readers to read our material in a certain way. Normally, a dependent clause of prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence does not require a comma, but a writer, on occasion, might want to insert one for effect.
With a comma, the following sentence takes on new meaning: “I studied for my exam but failed to pass,” or “I studied for my exam, but failed to pass.” Since the sentence is simple, it does not grammatically require a comma, but inserting one gives a totally different effect for the person reading it. With the comma, I can see in my mind the disappointment of the student.
Although comma usage rules are evolving in the world of grammar and writing, let’s keep the comma. Throwing them away—or severely limiting their use—could cause a lot of misunderstanding.
Martin Wiles is an author, pastor, English teacher, and editor who resides in Greenwood, South Carolina. He is the administrator/assistant editor for VineWords: Devotions and More, the Managing Editor for Christian Devotions, and the Senior Editor for Inspire a Fire. He is the founder/editor of the internationally recognized devotion site, Love Lines from God (www.lovelinesfromgod.com). He also serves as a freelance editor with several publishing companies. His most recent book is Don’t Just Live … Really Live (Ambassador International). He has also been published in numerous publications.