Editorial Maverick: commas

Some of the strongest articles of faith in the style guides concern commas. You must blah blah blah. You must not blah bah blee blah blah. People get militant. If you fail to do it their way, you are wrong and bad and just simply incorrect, and you probably shoplift at dollar stores.

There are rules for commas, and they aren’t stupid. Famous SF author C.J. Cherryh was the first one I heard say never to follow a rule off a cliff. An observation that goes with it is that one should know the rules in order to know when to break them.

I agree with that. To me, the question is whether bending or breaking the rule will make the words read better. Not be more correct; read better. Most of the time, writing reads better when one follows the rules. I’m more concerned with bumps in the flow. Sometimes the addition or omission of a comma creates a little jolt in the flow, like the feeling you get when you’re driving through Spokane (Washington) and the entire city is plagued by road damage and repairs. There are huge steel plates covering craters that could have been made by incoming mortar fire, and every time one hits one, there’s a jarring bump. If you have never driven in Spokane, you’re in for an experience.

In editing, one of my goals is to help remove jarring bumps that serve no purpose. I’ll encourage clients to use commas not where Chicago or Grammarly says they go, but where they read best. There is large and welcome overlap there, but in a conflict between rule nitpicking and successful written communication, I don’t see how I can take any side but the latter. Is it not about the audience?

Therein lies the point: Who’s the audience? Who would read this? If it were an audience of editors and grammarians, the comma rules would matter far more because what jolts experts differs from what jolts a layperson. How many authors seeking editors are writing for an audience of editors? None of them have yet brought their projects to me–but if they did, it would be a factor. Because that’s what would best reach that audience.

There is one comma area in which I have yet to see a single case for endorsement: the comma splice. When a comma connects two stand-alone sentences, we call this a comma splice. A comma splice always looks bad, their use is a terrible habit. (See? Hideous.) Depending on the situation, it might be better to break the sentence into two; to use a semicolon; even to use a colon. What one can’t do is stet [‘let stand as set’–editor-speak for ‘ignore this edit’] a comma splice. It cannot stand.

But if I ever learn of a situation that would make a comma splice look like effective communication, rather than the brain-shaking jolt that it is, I’ll rethink. That’s what an editorial maverick does–use their brain rather than just quote a book.

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