Over the years I’ve highlighted one or two punctuation guides which I’ve found useful in my writing. I’m not a stickler for punctuation rules, but I do believe that you have to understand them before you decide to break them. I’ve spent a few days reading through some of my older pieces of work to see it’s changed over the years (I’ve got a cold and I’m bored – leave me alone), and I’m pleased to see that there is much less that I’d change about my earlier work than I thought. I think my sense of rhythm has improved, and I’m a lot more ruthless in cutting out needless fluff than I used to be. Best of all though, I use a lot less commas.
The problem with the comma is that it has a pageful of rules concerning usage, many of which seem to clash. If you stick religiously to the comma laws then you’ll end up with a story that your readers will trip and hiccough through. Here’s my favourite edge case.
comma rule #1: in most cases, a conjunction (for, and, but, or, yet) should be preceded by a comma.
Sounds fair enough
Mary was tall, but Steven looked better in high heels.
Here we have two subjects in the sentence: Mary and Steven. If there’s a single subject then most writers will probably leave out the comma:
Mary was tall and looked good in high heels.
And even with two subjects, a few writers (myself included) might leave out the comma to achieve a better flow.
Mary was tall but Steven looked better in high heels.
(This is best done with short sentences only)
But then we have another comma rule:
comma rule #2: use bracketing commas around non-essential elements of a sentence.
So for example:
Steven’s dress, as beautiful as it was, lost a modicum of chic because he always smoked a pipe while wearing it.
In the sentence above, as beautiful as it was is a non-essential element: I can remove it and the sentence will not have lost its meaning and will still be grammatically correct.
Steven’s dress lost a modicum of chic because he always smoked a pipe while wearing it.
All good so far. The trouble starts when you have to apply both comma rules to the same sentence:
It was a beautiful gown, but, given the inclement weather, Steven decided to wear it with a sturdy pair of wellington boots.
Now that sentence bothers me, and it’s not just Steven’s lack of fashion sense. I’ve got a single word surrounded by commas and another comma later on. It’s correct but I’m not keen on the rhythm.
What to do…?
I’m just going to take out the second comma. :-O
It was a beautiful gown, but given the inclement weather, Steven decided to wear it with a sturdy pair of wellington boots.
Oh the humanity!
Right, you can’t just make stuff up!
That’s right, and to be honest I like to find at least one person who agrees with me before I throw the rule book out the window. For my money, the most comprehensive guide to comma usage can be found here.
and what makes it even more delicious is this statement it makes regarding non-essential elements.
… If the aside follows a coordinating conjunction used to connect two independent clauses, the comma preceding the aside is not needed.