An artist friend recently asked me for some quick guidance on when to use commas. “If the sentence is easier to understand with a comma, add it. If not, leave it out,” I replied.
She seemed pleased that I didn’t launch into a long list of rules and exception. I don’t take that approach because I think writing should be more about helping readers understand and less about rules that make eyes glaze over.
I call this philosophy minimalist punctuation. It’s easy for you and the reader and keeps your content uncluttered. Minimalist punctuation applies to semi-colons, quotation marks and (don’t get me started) exclamation points too.
Grammar lesson over, Mary and I got to talking about how both artists and writers have to master their craft before they can consider creating art.
Take Mary’s latest medium, ceramic sculpture. She does not slap together some clay and throw it in the oven. She follows very specific steps, before adding her original spin. She had to master the craft of ceramics by making tea cups and other simple objects before she could progress to sculpture.
Writing is the same. Anyone who writes at all needs to develop basic skills. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be difficult, even if you snoozed through grammar class in school. With commas and other punctuation marks, all you need to do is ask yourself whether they will help the reader understand.
Lynne Truss explained punctuation well in her best seller Eats Shoots & Leaves.
Her title demonstrates the vital role of the comma. If you write The panda eats shoots and leaves, your reader can easily understand that you are referring to the animal’s food. If you add the comma and write The panda eats, shoots and leaves, the reader is left wondering what the panda shot before he left.
Commas are also helpful when you have a set of words that belong together and the sentence is easier to understand if you surround them with commas. For example: On hot summer days, when I have no pressing deadlines, I take my dog for long walks by the lake.
Without the commas, you could have understood this simple sentence. But the commas made it easier. With a longer or more complex sentence, the comma probably would have been required, not optional.
Many people like Mary choose the comma when they are uncertain. Wrong. One of the biggest problems editors encounter is their overuse.
A common example is writing apples, peaches, and pears. Although style books differ, I prefer apples, peaches (no comma) and pears. That’s because the word and is doing the job of a comma. The commas is unnecessary.
Some bloggers and other writers I read seem to think that writing is more inspiration than perspiration, more auto trance than thought. They expect to create sculptures before they are comfortable with the craft of making tea cups that others will use and enjoy.
Even if we consider ourselves creative writers, we still need the fundamentals. That’s why it’s important to understand commas, whether you’re writing emails at work or the next great novel.
So think twice before you add commas. Remove unnecessary ones when you’re rereading your work. Simple.