“Let’s eat, grandma!”
“Let’s eat grandma!”
The humble comma makes these two phrases totally different. One calls Granny to the table and the other implies she’s the meal.
While this example always makes me giggle, grammar is a crucial element of clear writing. We writers have a vision, but in order for readers to understand our meaning, we need to know how to best get it across. And for that, we need grammar.
The Power of a Comma
Commas clarify and add complexity, but they also make writing more colloquial. Oh yes, more colloquial.
Rollercoasters are, unsurprisingly, my favorite things.
The commas give the above sentence personality. They make the reader pause and put emphasis on some words versus others. We now know the speaker must be a thrill seeker if it’s unsurprising that he/she loves rollercoasters.
This is how meaning is conveyed in real life. When we speak, we mark words, sentences, and phrases with drama by pausing or speeding up speech. In our age of texting or typing in 140 characters or less, commas are often dropped. Usually we can still figure out the sender’s message, but it’s different with a book. Not only do we want our intent to be clear, but we need punctuation to give sentences rhythm. Another area where punctuation makes writing more colloquial is with dialogue.
Imagine saying these two sentences out loud:
“Oh my gosh, I love my new emulsion blender. Is it a game changer, or what?”
“Oh my gosh I love my new emulsion blender is it a gamer changer or what?”
The second sentence sounds totally manic. If that’s what you’re going for, drop the commas. But be aware that that they change speech patterns dramatically. We know that speech hints at personality, so when creating a character, it’s important to be mindful of how they talk.
Are Commas Old Fashioned?
Grammar, including comma use, changes through time. Ever read the stem-winder sentences in the Classics? (I’m looking at you, Dickens!) We don’t do that anymore. We like full stops (periods) because shorter sentences are easier to read. Let’s be honest, most of us read articles—and even books—on our phones. With such a small screen, scrolling through a page-long sentence just isn’t going to work.
That said, commas do provide clarity. The series comma has been eradicated from the style guides of some venerable newspapers, but it’s not been removed from my use! Here’s an example of why I think it’s important:
I ate sausage, beans and rice for dinner last night.
Note the lack of series comma. This is now considered grammatical. But it’s confusing. Did you eat sausage and a mixture of beans and rice? Or did you eat three discrete foods? Sausage, beans, and rice? The world may never know without a series comma.
What about the sign that reads:
No smoking dogs or bikes.
Smoking dogs???? Someone call the American Lung Association!
Sure, these are silly and maybe context could help a reader figure out the true meaning. But you aren’t posting a sign. You are writing a book. The last thing you want is your reader being pulled out of your story to wonder what the heck you really meant. Don’t break the fourth wall due to insufficient comma usage.
That’d be silly, don’t you think?