In our second post on the powerhouse of writing, we look at how the comma can strengthen your writing.
The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
As a writer, you must know more than your ABCs, fancy words, or stylish phrases. You also need to know how to relate those words to your reader – that’s where punctuation kicks in.
Building on our successful series Punctuation For Beginners, we will now look beyond the grammar rules. What teachers usually don’t tell you is that those punctuation marks are the powerhouse of writing. Used correctly, punctuation can supercharge your text.
The Powerhouse of Writing 2: The Comma
1. Commas Steer Our Attention
Like the full stop (The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop), a comma reinforces the logical unit of a sentence. Commas do that by separating the main clause from anything that’s additional information. Check out this example:
Example: In the evening, Malcolm, like Holly, prefers to wear sweatpants and sneakers everywhere, even to the opera.
The most important part of the sentence is ‘Malcolm prefers to wear sweatpants and sneakers everywhere.’ When and where Malcolm does that or who else likes the same thing, is not the main point of the sentence. The commas tell us so.
Isn’t it great when readers know where the action is? It becomes important when the sentence is extremely long and tricky. Confused readers only need to look for the commas, cut out all the additions, and they’re back on track.
2. Commas Supply Breathers
If full stops create logical units, then commas create breathers along the way.
Ideally, it should be possible to read one sentence on one in-breath. But when they’re longer, readers need to breathe midway to be able to finish the sentence. It’s the writer’s job to help the reader by providing a caesura, a small break (shorter than the full stop). The comma is the most common caesura (a semi-colon is another, for example).
Readers need these breaks to make sense of the sentence. If there is no time to catch your breath, then readers will drop out. As writers, we want to keep our readers on the page. We need them to focus on what we have to say. So, why not supply the breathers? You only need to use commas correctly.
Imagine what would happen if you didn’t. Place too few commas, and your readers will be breathless. Why? Because they will try to finish the sentence on one in-breath. On the other hand, place too many commas, and your readers will be panting!
3. Commas Keep The Readers On The Page
Because commas steer the readers’ breath and focus, they also help to keep readers on the page. As writers, we use this when we provide setting, description, backstory, and anything where we want to keep the reader relishing our every word and linger in that sentence.
Commas are the writer’s allies in slowing the reading pace down while keeping the reader’s attention up.
Here’s an example from Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
Did you count? That’s 17 commas until the full stop! Dickens could have used more full stops, of course. It would have revved up our reading flow, but it would have turned this text into a monotonous staccato.
Instead, Dickens created an atmosphere of opposites, placing the reader directly in the middle. It’s a clever move to get the reader pulled into the story. Dickens couldn’t have done that without the commas.
4. Commas Give Details And Clarity
Especially in enumerations, commas serve to separate each detail from the other, making each stand out. Compare these two examples:
Example: Sabrina’s coat was yellow smudged out-of-date.
Sabrina’s coat was yellow, smudged, and out-of-date.
In the first sentence, we wonder if the coat had yellow smudges or if the coat was yellow and smudged, with the smudges in a different colour. Is it out-of-date because of the smudges? We don’t know. Do you notice how much energy we need to think?
Not so in the second sentence. It’s clear that yellow is the basic colour of the coat. We don’t know what colour the smudges are. And being out-of-date has nothing to do with the smudges.
By placing the commas correctly, writers bring clarity. Commas help to give a little bit of the readers’ attention to each of these details. The reader doesn’t have to guess. Give readers too much guessing to do and they’ll stop reading.
5. Commas Supply Meaning
This is the classic point all grammar teachers like to mention. I can’t resist, either. The examples are so much fun! Please punctuate the following (you may use more than commas):
Example: A woman without her man is nothing.
You have two alternatives:
Example 1: A woman, without her man, is nothing. (Male patriarchy)
Example 2: A woman: without her, man is nothing. (realistic fact)
Notice the difference in meaning? The first sentence is charged with patriarchal thinking, probably from a male point of view. The second sentence is almost philosophic because humankind is born by women. This might be closer to a woman’s point of view. Whatever your school of thinking, the commas influence your interpretation, don’t they?
Another example where commas create meaning is this classic example.
Example: Let’s eat grandma! (Rather cannibalistic)
Proper punctuation gives another alternative:
Example: Let’s eat, grandma! (Inviting grandma to dinner)
Proper punctuation not only compartmentalizes words into logical units but also actively creates meaning. It’s all in the commas and the full stops.
The Last Word
Commas and full stops steer readers through your text. They can keep readers on the page or kick them out. It’s your choice! By steering breath, attention, and focus, they also create your writer’s voice inside the readers’ minds. So, make sure the readers get the message you want.
Next, we’ll focus on how punctuation creates tone and feeling. Until then, have some fun placing those commas!
Further Reading: The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
By Susanne Bennett.
Susanne is a German-American writer who is a journalist by trade and a writer by heart. After years of working at German public radio and an online news portal, she has decided to accept challenges by Deadlines for Writers. Currently she is writing her first novel with them. She is known for overweight purses and carrying a novel everywhere. Follow her on Facebook.
More Posts From Susanne
- The Powerhouse Of Writing 1: The Full Stop
- How To Play Surrealist Word Games
- How To Write Surrealist Poetry
- What Is Automatic Writing?
- Surrealism – What Every Writer Should Know
- How To Write Without Your Muse
- Why You Should Love Doing A Rewrite
- 10 Things That Stifle A Writer’s Creativity
- What Procrastination Can Do For You
- What Is A Pastiche & Why Should I Write One?