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”.