Where have all the commas gone?

I have been enjoying reading a children’s book called The Silver Brumby by Elyne Mitchell. It’s quite a famous Australian book, first published in 1958. For those of you who don’t live here in Australia, brumbies are a type of wild horse, most commonly found in the Snowy Mountains.

One of the interesting things I noticed in this beautifully written book is the proliferation of commas. They are used with gay abandon. Actually the word ‘gay’ is used with gay abandon as well. How times have changed. Anyway, the book begins like this…

Once there was a dark, stormy night in spring, when, deep down in their holes, the wombats knew not to come out, when the possums stayed quiet in their hollow limbs, when the great black flying phalangers (a type of glider – see photo below) that live in the mountain forests never stirred. In this night, Bel Bel, the cream brumby mare, gave birth to a colt, pale like herself, or paler, in that wild, black storm.

250px-Sugies03_hp

Wow, look at all those commas! You don’t see them being used this much in contemporary writing but I think they give the writing a beautiful cadence that it wouldn’t have otherwise.  Judging by the writing that passes over my desk most days, it seems that the comma has quite gone out of fashion and I think this is a pity.

According to my son and his girlfriend, most young people are taught that they should never use a comma before the word ‘and’ and you should never start a sentence with and. Both of these rules are quite wrong, in my humble opinion. My favourite writing blog Grammar Girl says that we should definitely be using a comma before ‘and’ when it is being used to separate the items in a list.

This is called the Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s important because it adds clarity to your writing.

Here’s an example straight from Gramma Girl… Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.

The absence of any commas after peanut butter makes it unclear how many types of muffins there are. There could be one recipe involving all three ingredients, or three different types of muffins: peanut butter, chocolate chip, and coconut. A serial comma in the appropriate place would help you identify the number of items in the list.

The serial comma helps things to make sense, so don’t be afraid to use it when it’s called for. After all, our aim is to help people to understand what we are saying, so you should be trying to make this as easy as possible.

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8 thoughts on “Where have all the commas gone?

  1. I had never heard of phalangers until I read this book. Apparently the group includes all types of cute furry gliders and possums.

  2. A comma is used to indicate, also, where a breath can be taken. Or it indicates a section of the sentence that is additional to its meaning, such as the ‘also’ in the first sentence above. Loving the blog!

  3. English isn’t my first language. I love using commas because its helping to convoy a clear message. Thank you for posting such an useful blog.

    1. Hi there Sing and thanks for your comments. Yes commas certainly help your sentences make sense. I often find that if I need to read something more than once to figure out what it means, it’s usually because there are not enough commas.

      1. Hi Deb and thanks for taking the time to respond. I agree wholeheartedly that commas have all types of uses, but are especially important to indicate breath marks. I can’t help thinking that the lack of commas in modern writing indicates a certain breathlessness to the way we live our lives.

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