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April 6, 2012 / Alistair Sisson

The Art of Comma-ing

I’m not really sure what I was thinking when I decided to blog about punctuation. In “That’ll do, comma” (from her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves), Lynne Truss tries to make punctuation (particularly commas) interesting. I can see now, at least, that it’s an important consideration.

You may take it for granted, but the comma plays a pretty crucial part in setting the pace and rhythm of a piece of writing, and it is easy to underuse, overuse and misuse. Truss calls them the “traffic signals of language”; it’s important to get them right, so that the words in your sentence don’t end up in a messy accident.

The problem (for me) with “That’ll do, comma” is that it isn’t scientifically-oriented. Some of the rules given for correct comma usage in the book aren’t really relevant to science writing, and some are pretty obvious; however, there are a few that I think are worth mentioning.

One of those is how and when to use an Oxford comma. This can be used to accentuate the fact that nouns or adjectives are distinct from one another. For example;

“Cancer is commonly treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or surgery.”

Hopefully you can see how this use of the Oxford comma (after “immunotherapy”) separates the three types of surgery from one another. The comma forces a slight pause before “immunotherapy” and “or surgery” to emphasize their individuality, rather than suggesting that a immunotherapy and surgery are types of chemotherapy (ie. “Cancer is commonly treated with chemotherapy, immunotherapy or surgery.”).

What’s next? The splice comma of course. It is commonly used in writing fiction, but is too informal for writing about science. Don’t use it; a semi-colon is more correct and will make you look smarter (see?). For example;

“China is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; the country has undergone massive industrialisation over the last two decades.”

is much better than;

“China is the largest emitter of Greenhouse gases in the world, the country has undergone massive industrialisation over the last two decades.”

The rhythm of the sentence is better in the former, and it is easier to understand as a result. The semi-colon creates an active tone and implies causality, while the splice comma is passive and does not.

One really useful application for commas in science writing is substituting a word or phrase for a comma; very handy if you are constantly exceeding word limits like I am. This usage can make your writing more clear and concise;

“The Eastern Grass Owl is found in warm climates; the Snowy Owl, cold.”

All of this may seem a bit pedantic; Truss’s guidelines can largely be ignored as long as a sentence makes sense when you read it, so don’t get too caught up in the technicalities of punctuation. Punctuation is a tool principally for rhythm and tone; it’s only when you misuse it that it can give a sentence the wrong meaning. As Truss says, just “don’t use commas like a stupid person”.

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14 Comments

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  1. muza2009 / Apr 11 2012 5:37 am

    I like your use of science examples to illustrate the Oxford and splice commas and I certainly argee that the mechanisms of English grammar and punctuation are far from definitive scientific rules. I do however get confused on your view of comma usage, as at times you encourage proper comma usage e.g. “one useful application” and then you suggest readers “not get caught up in technicalties” . At one point you also suggest that proper comma usage has little relevance to science writing – what do you mean by “science writing”?

    • alistairsisson / Apr 11 2012 10:38 am

      I don’t think that there necessarily is such a thing as ‘proper comma usage’, maybe more traditional or recommended comma usage. Also, I don’t think I said explicitly that comma usage has little relevance to science writing (by which I mean the prosaic explanation of scientific concepts or issues, be that in academic or journalistic work). What I mean is this: there is little scientific applicability of arguments such as where an interrupting comma is placed; either

      “Belinda opened the trapdoor and after listening for a minute she closed it again.”

      or

      “Belinda opened the trapdoor, and after listening for a minute she closed it again.”

      or

      “Belinda opened the trapdoor, and, after listening for a minute, she closed it again.”

      In my opinion, in all three cases Belinda is opening the trapdoor then listening for a minute and then closing the trapdoor. Personal preference will decide which sentence has the best flow or rhythm, as is important in Literature. In conveying scientific concepts, I think that the argument is arbitrary and is of little importance.

  2. selinamj / Apr 11 2012 6:04 am

    I found this post pretty intersting, who knew that so much thought needed to go into using a comma!
    I really like the example of the Oxford comma as that is something I would have not but that much thought into before and always wondered why people bothered to put a comma before the word or/and. You explained why really well and now I am actually going to have to think about it.
    I am a little more confused by the splice comma and using a semi colon instead. I don’t like the overuse of the semi-colon and don’t understand why more is one correct?
    I also don’t know that I would activley use commas to replace words because things can get confusing when you cut too many words out of a sentence but I understand you using it to avoid repeating words.

  3. ashfonty / Apr 11 2012 8:47 am

    I couldn’t help but read your post as my grammatical knowledge is pretty poor. I think I am often one of those people that throws in a comma willy-nilly without really thinking about it! Your title drew me in straight away and I hoped to learn a little about the fine art of ‘the comma’.

    I’m happy to say you didn’t disappoint! I didn’t realise comma’s used in different contexts had different names. I have often wondered about the use of semi-colons and I think you had great explanations for when to use what. Its interesting that you say the semi-colon implies a more active tone as opposed to the splice comma. I think ‘formal’ science writing (i.e. reports or published findings) have historically preferred the passive tone – so maybe the splice comma would have been appropriate. Having said that I agree that the semi-colon works better for me in your example.

    I agree with Muza that you have slightly conflicted messages regarding the importance of using commas correctly. On the one hand I understand what you mean about ‘not getting too caught up in it’ but then you have made a strong argument for why it is important to get it right.

  4. chimk / Apr 12 2012 12:56 pm

    I am also one of people who use a lot of commas in my writing. The article has got very helpful insights on when the commas are supposed to be used, however, i really need to start putting the commas before the “and” if leaving it out is grammatically wrong.

  5. michaelpetersen1 / Apr 13 2012 2:02 am

    Interesting post, you made a potentially boring topic like commas very readable and used good examples to Illustrate your points more effectively and made the post more interesting. I agree that when it comes to grammer and the proper use of commas there is no right way that they should be used, it really comes down to writing style and preference but you provide a good guide to making science writing “look smarter”.

  6. axl1228 / Apr 13 2012 6:30 am

    Nice post. An enjoyable reading.
    English is my second language, and I was taught in school that English has only one verb in one sentence, except conjunction words (but/and…) or clauses are used. So example like “China is the largest emitter of Greenhouse gases in the world, the country has undergone massive industrialisation over the last two decades.” is grammatically wrong (in the way I was taught).
    But as you mentioned, when I read some English novels, I notice that some use of punctuation are more flexible. For instance, my favorite writer, Jack Kerouac, he liked to use many semi-colons. In some paragraphs there is only one full period. As a non-native speaker, I can’t tell if it’s beautiful language or not, while personally I quite enjoy his style.
    For science articles, long sentences with complex structures are always hard for me to read. Comma can make the paragraph looks more logical, such as Oxford Comma, as well as give rhythm to the sentence.

  7. studentname23 / Apr 13 2012 8:17 am

    I went for a writing class mainly to study the commas. When I started writing the assignment, I forgot all the rules. So I went back to the tutor to correct the writing. It looked nice after the correction. Now I have forgotten the rules again. I read Alistair’s “Art of Comma-ing”, after reading “That’ ll Do, Comma”. Now I have confused again. For example; I don’t know in the example for oxford comma, whether cancer has three modes of treatment rather than three modes of surgery. Yes, I need to read again.

  8. maria93 / Apr 13 2012 8:43 am

    I found this post very interesting.

    I liked the use of examples as it helped to make your point easier to understand,
    except for the last example where I found I had to read the sentence more than once to actually understand it. I’m not a fan of replacing that many words with commas as I found it made the sentence a whole lot more confusing.

    I agree that there aren’t definitive rules for punctuation but it is needed to set the pace and rhythm of any piece of writing.

  9. rhiandyer / Apr 13 2012 8:48 am

    I clearly understood your point that it doesn’t matter what punctuation you use, so long as the person reading the article understands it they way it was intended.

    I think the other commenters who have labeled your post as ambiguous have missed your point that punctuation is a tool that we could use, if it is appropriate.

    The question Mousa posed “what do you mean by ‘science writing’” alludes to the target audience. Use of punctuation needs to be appropriate for different audiences because it is only as good as the ability of the audience to use it.

    Remember there is an entire generation in Australia who don’t understand grammar because someone in the education department went back to work after a brain haemorrage and decided we didn’t need to be taught anymore (or was that just in NSW?). The point is for some audiences simple punctuation is more effective.

    That brings me to you last example:

    “The Eastern Grass Owl is found in warm climates; the Snowy Owl, cold.”

    Is this comma grammatically correct? From what I understand these are both independent clauses and the second one is now incomplete because there is no verb (don’t judge me I am from the aforementioned generation). Regardless I found the flow of this sentence to be disrupted by the comma rather than enhanced.

    I understand you saved a few words, but I think that is the least important part about communication. I personally would have restructured the entire sentence so it flowed a bit better.

  10. annagardiner / Apr 14 2012 3:41 am

    this was a nice easy read, and kept me interested the whole time despite the less than exciting subject. Great sentence examples, the different comma types were clear. While I’m a fan of semi-colons I find myself using dashes more often, for example, “there are 85000 species of flies – 350 of which are Australia”. I guess they work exactly the same, but agree that the semi-colon probably looks ‘smarter’
    good job!

  11. kellyfitzsimons1 / Apr 14 2012 12:00 pm

    Your post was enjoyable and easy to understand. I particularly liked your use of examples throughout the post as they certainly made the concepts easier to understand. Also the hyperlinks to the wikipedia notes on commas were a great resource for me to look up additional information or to clarify my understanding.

    However I also agree with rhiandyer in that at times adding commas and removing words can just make a concept more difficult to understand. In saying that, the example that you used worked well in demonstrating what you were meaning.

    Although the picture of the owl was cute, I would like to question whether it really was required. I don’t think it added to your blog or helped me understand any of your concepts. Maybe, if it was at the beginning of the article it might have captured my attention as I was scrolling down the science writing website but even then it wouldn’t have added to your blog. But that is just my opinion. What do others think?

    • alistairsisson / Apr 15 2012 2:16 am

      The owl is essential.

  12. noelynn / Apr 14 2012 10:07 pm

    Comma’s are useful tools in writing. However, when and where to use them in a piece of writing is still not clear to me. Not that I write well, but because English is my second language, the proper use of comma is confusing. I effectively use it when a list is mentioned. But other than that, comma is just used anyhow.
    Your post didn’t draw the distinct line as to when exactly to use commas. The content of the explanation with examples was useful though. Overall, I cannot say I am confident in comma usage, but at least it’s importance is spelt out in the post. The title was catchy, otherwise.

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