Commas: Curiosity and Concern

by Jonathan Adjemian

Published at 2018-06-21

Commas, for any copy editor—or, for that matter, any copy writer—are a most familiar tool, as well as a potential source of frustration. Correcting punctuation for grammar and clarity is a key part of any copy editor’s job, but commas also play a role in shaping elements of writing that aren’t as simple as “correct” and “incorrect” usage. The comma, we’re often told, corresponds to a “slight pause” in oral delivery—and it’s not uncommon, in a room of editors hard at work, to hear a low muttering as someone tries out a particular phrase, listening for that tell-tale pause to confirm their punctuation choices.

As David Crystal explains in his Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), punctuation choices have a complicated relation to the spoken word. After all, most English speakers don’t put space between words. Thus, Crystal identifies many functions for the comma, including the “psycholinguistic”: “it gives the reader time to assimilate, time to mentally breathe” (p. 236).


Why Do We Use It? Comma History

The comma is historically linked to the publishing and editing process. The technical origins of the device, and its name, apparently look back to a certain Aristophanes of Byzantium in the 3rd century BCE, who added dots to written (Greek) text to indicate where a speaker should pause for breath (a short passage, marked by a dot at mid-line height, was called a komma). In Latin writing, punctuation, and even spacing between words, was not seen as necessary during the Middle Ages, and most manuscripts are in scripto continua, providing a string of letters with the reader responsible for breaking them into units of meaning.

It was with the establishment of printing that punctuation began to be standardized. We owe the modern use of the comma, along with italic type, script fonts, and the pioneering of pocket-sized books, to Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer of the 15th–16th centuries. Although Manutius had to contend with copyright infringement, war, and several labour disputes with his employees, his work left lasting marks on the publishing process: re-punctuating for clarity has become a major part of the editing process, whether in reprints of historical works (Manutius’ stock-in-trade) or the publication of new works.


Epochal Flavours 

The idea of writing this blog post came from a recent TEC project involving a manuscript that presented a 19th-century memoir in an edited and heavily annotated edition. The author had already reformatted the earlier text, replacing the punctuation styles of the day—which made heavy use of capital letters and dashes—with more contemporary usage. One type of sentence construction turned out to be quite common (not from the manuscript, but a kind of meta-commentary on it):

The author having already revised the text, the poor copy editor was reduced to merely shuffling punctuation about.

In this project, the contemporary reader’s instinct seemed to be to add a comma after “author,” identifying “having already revised the text” as a non-restrictive appositive phrase modifying “author”: something that adds additional identifying information to the subject (it is “in apposition to” the subject) but which could be removed without altering the meaning of the sentence (as a restrictive appositive phrase would do). We might find this in any number of sentences, such as:

The author, having already revised the text, was able to dispatch the manuscript within moments.

But in the case of the sentence above, something quite different is going on: the author is in fact not even the subject of the sentence. Instead, the entire phrase before the first comma provides contextual information for the sentence’s main function, making an assertion about the copy editor.

Why did this seem confusing today? The main reason is probably that it would be rare to hear this construction in contemporary speech; a speaker would be more likely to make the connection between the two phrases explicit by adding a “because” or something similar. 


Simplicity Above All?

As anyone who translates into English is well aware, the English language can accommodate quite a lot of flexibility in terms of the order and linking of elements in a sentence. For instance, the first sentence of this blog could be rephrased to avoid commas altogether:

Commas are a familiar tool and potential source of frustration for any copy editor or copy writer.

Why, then, complicate things? For the author, that may not be the question: there is no guarantee that a passage will come to a writer in its least-punctuated form. Simplicity in punctuation and clarity in expression are not necessarily synonymous.



By moving the copy editor and copy writer forward in our sample sentence, this introductory sentence flags its intended audience more clearly. Setting the information off as an appositive phrase actually gives it more weight. Further layers of commas and a “for that matter” add more nuance: the sentence, and the post it introduces, is primarily addressed to copy editors (appropriate on an editing blog), while the additional comment about copy writers indicates that the issue has broader relevance:

Commas, for any copy editor or, for that matter, copy writer, are a most familiar tool…

By this point, the sentence is has gotten rather cluttered, and converting a pair of commas into an em-dash helps give clarity and some breathing space in this dense field of commas (a psycholinguistic function, perhaps). The comment on audience becomes a kind of aside:

Commas—for any copy editor or, for that matter, copy writer— …

If you are a copy editor, you might have imagined my eyes turning towards you here, while if you are not a copy editor you may have turned away in boredom. The slightly different version actually used, putting the em-dash further on, creates complicity between speaker and copy editor, while acknowledging the writer’s situation as related but potentially separate.


The Endless Shuffle 

These are subtle shifts, and you may well prefer a different version to the one I opened this blog with. We also haven’t touched on the last comma in the sentence, before “as well as” (ultimately up to the writer’s or editor’s taste), or the fact that by some conventions a comma might follow the em-dash, as is common in French-language writing. Ultimately, shifting commas can be an endless procedure, and knowing when to stop wasting time and move on is a key skill for any editor (or anyone supervising an editor’s schedule). On which point, it may be time to get back to editing…