I was amused this week to see that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a stern rebuke to the State Department staff about – not protocol or international customs – but the lowly comma.
I applaud his concern about proper punctuation. (It’s unusual for me to feel good about something in the government these days!) As Pompeo complains, the comma is vastly overused. That poor little curve of a symbol must get exhausted. Yet how powerful the comma is, able to change the entire meaning of a sentence. An MSNBC anchor flavored the nightly news with a joke about this that runs: A panda goes into a restaurant, orders a dish of his favorite food, and then shoots the waiter. The sentence reads: The panda eats, shoots and leaves. Take away that intrusive comma and you have the innocent creature merely eating and leaving
I bring this up because overpunctuation is anathema to me, too. The comma, according to Webster, should indicate a “very brief pause.” One way to test this is by reading aloud what you’ve written. That always gives me a sure feeling about whether I need that particular punctuation or can happily delete it. Often commas just get in the way, like annoying flies you have to brush aside. The estimable Chicago Manual of Style cautions that overuse leads to “choppiness.” This is especially true when it comes to poetry. I know a woman who insists her poems include numerous punctuation marks – not only commas, but dashes and even semicolons . (Stephen King thinks the semicolon should be abolished!)
Note that exclamation point – another item too freely used. It’s supposed be for emphasis, but not every sentence needs to be that emphatic. Recently I received a letter from an eight-year-old who is proud of being able to form letters and adept at spelling, but ends every sentence with an exclamation point. I guess she likes it so much they overflow from her pen. At least she’s young enough to learn better.
The Golden Rule is discretion. On the other hand, many times it’s a matter of preference. We all stumble over whether or not to include a comma after “and” and “but,” when there are several items (an apple, banana and orange.) You can see that I didn’t include that busy comma before orange. But those who follow what’s intimidatingly called the Oxford Comma would write this as apple, banana, and, orange.
So is it important to- know these mundane facts when we’re trying to be creative? Yes, because these are the tools of our trade. Surely we can be as faithful to them as any carpenter to his tool kit. We can even go to the Internet, type in “commas” and a wealth of clarifying information will pop up.
The famed “Less Is More” maxim doesn’t apply solely to the story, but the punctuation within it that makes us look professional.
BOOKS: Widow’s Walk – available through iUniverse.com; Turning Toward Tomorrow –Xlibris.com; Ten Women of Valor and Role Play both available through CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com; also Amazon Kindle.