The humble comma is a known trouble-maker.
If you adhere to what we learned in high school English, and what may have subsequently been reinforced by your college teachers in English 101, then you like the use of commas. Lots of em, if you write long sentences. You use commas wherever the reader would naturally pause or take a breath. You use them prior to, and sometimes after, the word ‘and’. You use them where they fall naturally, using your inner ear to guide you. If you’re Hilary Mantel, and you’re writing your novel Wolf Hall, destined to earn you the coveted Man Booker Prize, you toss them in like literary confetti…and don’t even get me started on the colons and semi-colons; we’ll get to those in just a moment.
It used to be, and still is for many, one of the hallmarks of literary writing to use many commas. Literary writing tends to longer, more complex sentences, and so the comma gets a workout.
But then along slopes Cormac McCarthy, and he gets everyone all mixed up and confused again about the whether and when of using these pesky, troublesome little curls of ink—because it’s apparent he feels they are almost unnecessary. He’s a literary writer, no question. (Check out the language and imagery in two of his long beautiful sentences in this post if you have any doubt.) And yet he thumbs his nose at using commas in most of the places where an English teacher would, (ditto for semi-colons) and what’s more, he gets away with it. And even gets given prizes for this unruly behavior.
But then Cormac is a breed unto himself, isn’t he? He says he writes for himself, and we must take him at his word. Remember, this is the guy who writes ‘in the floor’ rather than ‘on the floor’, and offers no apology or explanation for it. If you’re scratching your head because you hadn’t noticed this weird quirk of his, you are not alone. Many of the readers and writers I point this out to haven’t. As to why he does this we’ll probably never know, unless we are given the opportunity to ask the man himself. And then he may just scratch his grizzled chin and mutter, do I? (But I won’t be fooled by this feigned innocence, and neither should you; he’s doing it to mess with us.)
When I first began going to a few of the writers groups here in the valley, a young writer in one of the groups—an Emo-looking guy who wore black eye-liner, rode a crotch rocket, and wrote about other-worldly creatures not too unlike himself—held a chapter submission of my writing in his pale hands and made the observation: you like to use commas. This got me to thinking:
Is it possible that our written language is morphing toward eschewing ‘proper’ punctuation like commas and semi-colons?
This comment from the Emo guy occurred a few years ago, and I have since been watching, reading, and thinking about this topic, and here’s what I deduce: I think many people who don’t use commas simply don’t fully understand how to use them. They tend not to use long sentences in their writing either. And others simply choose not to use commas because they feel they can be cumbersome (and I partly agree).
But without them you simply can’t create the cadence of a beautiful sentence like this one from Bernard Cornwell’s, The Winter King:
We skirted some dreadful rocks that were crowned with the bones of ships that had foundered, and then, in a warm evening, with a small wind and a rising tide helping out tired rowers, we slid into a wide river where, beneath the lucky wings of a flight of swans, we beached our craft.
Now as to semi-colons: I’ve read the most remarkable statements about our little winking friend. I can always tell when a person clearly doesn’t get what semi-colons are for if they say they shouldn’t be used at all, or if they say the semi-colon should only be used before a list (actually, I think this person may have confused its purpose with the colon…easy to do). There are so many instances where only a semi-colon will suffice. The semi-colon is a soft stop, as opposed to the hard stop of the period. Think of a Yield sign, as opposed to a Stop sign. The semi-colon creates flow. You tap your reading brakes and coast through the soft stop. The semi-colon is perfect for connecting two independent clauses where the second further illuminates the first. Like these, from Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel:
Meanwhile her women had put the little creature into bed; or said they had, for they thought that in bed she would be safe against him.
It is a wan morning, low unbroken cloud; the light, filtering sparely through glass, is the color of tarnished pewter.
Check out these others from Wolf Hall: This first one contains not just a semi-colon, but a colon, as well as eleven commas.
He has said, Liz, there’s Tyndale’s book, his New Testament, in the locked chest there, read it, here’s the key; she says, you read it to me if you’re so keen, and he says, it’s in English, read it for yourself: that’s the point, Lizzie.
Or how about these?
An unknown woman brought a basin of water and washed the severed head; she combed its bloody hair.
The cardinal lies on his back, a crimson mountain; he flails his hands; he offers his bishopric of Winchester to anyone who can get him back on his mule.
The old king grew narrow as he aged; he kept a hard hand on England; there was no nobleman he did not hold by a debt or bond, and he said frankly that if he could not be loved he would be feared.
How about this doozie, which contains not just one, but four semi-colons, and five commas:
The message he’s giving the cardinal, it seems, is that the king only appears displeased, but is not really displeased; that he knows the cardinal has enemies; that he himself, Henricus Rex, is not one of them; that this show of force is only to satisfy those enemies; that he is able to recompense the cardinal with twice as much as has been taken from him.
The semi-colon is great for separating phrases where using yet another comma would create confusion. Like this, from Stephen King’s, Full dark, No Stars.
His bald spot had become well entrenched; his glasses had become bifocals; his weight had spun up from one-eighty into the two-twenty range.
Or this one from The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell (I supply the sentence prior for clarity.)
But what choice did I have? I was young; I wanted to live; I had taken the oath; I followed my leader.
I have heard a few people say they actually hate the semi-colon. Which simply makes me think of the axiom that we hate what we fear. And the only way I know of to get past that kind of bad feeling is to familiarize oneself with the abhorred thing in question. I think most of these readers/writers would see what a thing of beauty the semi-colon is, if they simply stopped fearing it.
Hilary Mantel definitely does not fear the semi-colon, I can tell you that. And she’s not in the least confused about how to use it. She will tell you that in any book of hers you crack open. A close read of her masterful Wolf Hall is possibly the perfect tonic to help get over a reluctance to press the semi-colon key. (Or the colon key!)
But back to the comma; the tiny provocateur of confusion and angst.
I have begun experimenting with using less of them. And I notice other writers whose work I critique doing the same, in some cases. It seems to me, that unless not using it in a sentence creates confusion, then it’s safe to not use it. But now I am getting lots of red marks on my manuscript from classically trained writer/critiquers who feel I should add commas here and there. It’s probably driving them batty.
The conclusion I have arrived at is this: Whatever camp you fall into, whether you like lots of commas, or, like Cormac, you shun them, one thing is indisputable—the story must be a good one, well told.
Commas or not, semi-colons or not: It’s story that carries the day.