Editing my writing over the years, I’ve had a mental image of a big bucket full of commas that I’ve deleted from the novels in my Herbert West Trilogy. Running along the rows of text, I’ve plucked out commas right and left and tossed them into the bucket.
I admit that my usage of commas is largely determined by the way a sentence sounds in my mind as I’m composing it — rather like creating music without bothering to learn musical notation. In fact, I see prose as a kind of word-music, and apply commas in spots where one might take a breath while reading aloud.
I just did some superficial (is there any other kind?) web searching on the topic of comma usage and found a list called “10 Completely Wrong Ways to Use” this punctuation mark. Number 4 is my personal bugbear, as it turns out — inserting a comma after the first component of a compound predicate. “She hated going to the dentist, and cried the whole way there.” Yes! This is exactly the kind of thing I do, not because I want to break a rule of usage (chortling wickedly as I insert the comma), but because to me the comma here represents a tiny pause in which the reader may savour the fact that “she” hated going to the dentist, before going on to the consequence of that hatred, her tears. If I want to do this and remain on the right side of the rules, I must turn the sentence into a compound one by repeating the subject “she” in the part after the conjunction, like this: “She hated going to the dentist, and she cried the whole way there.”
Well. I am a cataloguer by profession and therefore used to complex rules involving tiny details of wording and punctuation, but even to me this seems quite byzantine. (You don’t know what a cataloguer is? A kind of librarian. “Cataloger” is another way to spell it. Look it up).
The point is that both the correct and incorrect sentences I quoted look OK to me. I’m almost certain that if I were reading an interesting book, eager to find out who did it, or whether they get back together in the end, or if she escapes, I wouldn’t notice such an error.
This brings up a blog post by a fellow writer (also Canadian) that mentions “Canadian punctuation.” It seems that if one is preparing a book for the American market, one must punctuate American style. Do Canadians use more commas? If I’m an example, I suppose the answer is “Yes.” But again — does it matter? In fiction at least, if your prose is such that readers actually notice the way you use commas, the commas are probably the least of your problems.
This calls to mind yet another fellow writer’s blog post, recommending that writing may be improved by deleting instances of the word “that.” For example: “Alma thought Herbert had been dead for fifteen years,” instead of “Alma thought that Herbert had been dead for fifteen years.” She’s right; the “that” doesn’t really add anything and the sentence is smoother without it. The problem is that once you focus on a word or punctuation mark, it’s all you can see as you read on. Sentences become meaningless because your brain can’t focus on anything else. It’s like when you notice a clock ticking or a fly buzzing; suddenly that sound seems intolerable and overwhelming. When that word or that comma is all you can see, you need to disengage and reset your brain. Take a walk, do some pushups, chase the cat around or have a drink — whatever it takes — before getting back to the text.
Words arranged in order have meaning, sharpened by the squiggles and dots that are punctuation marks. A deleted sentence falls back into its elements of words and letters; the commas, periods and dashes are tossed carelessly into the virtual bucket sitting by the writer’s feet.
For the last word on usage, you may wish to consult William Strunk’s 1918 classic The Elements of Style.