In Defense of the Comma

While recently speaking with a fellow author, we commiserated about the lackadaisical syntax employed by many so-called professional writers. One glaring error was the misuse of commas when employing clauses or phrases. These writers have forgotten a basic principle of writing: A writer writes for someone else to receive a facsimile of the original meaning.

Many aspects go into building a cogent sentence, but the comma supplies proper syntax and meaning. When the meaning is vague or the reader must double-back to interpret a sentence, the writer has failed as a communicator. For example, the following sentence can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

When the shipment approaches westward transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters.

Let’s employ commas in different configurations to see how the meaning changes.

When the shipment approaches, westward transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [1]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [2]

When the shipment approaches westward transportation, vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [3]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [4]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives, providing increased security and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [5]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives, providing increased security, and necessary functions as mandated by headquarters. [6]

When the shipment approaches westward, transportation vehicles will execute directives providing increased security and necessary functions, as mandated by headquarters. [7]

[1] Suggests only an approaching shipment.

[2] Suggests a shipment approaching in a westward direction.

[3] Suggests a shipment approaching westward moving or positioned transportation.

[4] Suggests transportation will execute only the directives that provide increased security and necessary functions.

[5] Suggests directives will provide increased security and necessary functions.

[6] Suggests directives will provide increased security and that necessary functions were mandated by headquarters.

[7] Suggests directives and functions were both mandated by headquarters.

When proofing your work, it’s a good idea to consider the eventual reader and if he or she will receive the intended meaning. The reader will not be able to ask questions and shouldn’t have to. Precise meaning, wrought through proper syntax, builds confidence in the reader and a superior reputation as a professional.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including and the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Comma

  1. So true. Then there is the issue of using commas as if they are coming out of a salt shaker. And then there are those highly misused semicolons. Yikes.

    Like

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