Remember that poor kid who would get called on to read aloud in class and the class would collectively cringe? It would take him like fifteen minutes to make it through one tiny paragraph because he paused after every single word. Imagine if that guy inserted a comma every time he paused: his, sentences, would, look, like, this.
Yes, I’m officially on a rampage about the comma-when-you-pause theory. I mentioned in my last post that it’s a dangerous theory because sometimes when we pause we should be using different punctuation marks, but I was thinking about this last night (because that’s what I do while everyone else is watching American Idol auditions), and I realized that there’s so much more to the story.
As per my example above, one of my issues with blanketly (that might not be a word) stating that we insert a comma when we pause is that we don’t all pause in the same place- some of us may pause too much and some may pause too little. But, it’s even more than that.
I had this epiphany last night: the comma is not as much about creating a pause as it is about creating a separation. I know- it’s a lot to take in after associating the comma with a pause for so long. It’s like after having associated Daniel Radcliffe with innocent Harry Potter for so long, he ups and takes a role in a play as a dude with a weird thing for horses.
But, I realized that a comma is less like a rest stop and more like that rubber divider we put between our stuff and the stuff that belongs to the person behind us at the supermarket so, god forbid, we don’t end up paying for their gouda.
For example, we insert a comma between items in a list of three or more, not because we are so terribly exhausted after the first item, but because we need to separate the items so we know where one item begins and the next one ends.
For example, without commas, this sentence is very confusing:
I need to buy a leather whip cream silk sheets milk and cat food.
It’s difficult to tell where one item ends and the other begins. And, I’m not sure whether she wants to buy silk and sheets or silk sheets. So, Vanna, please get those commas for me:
I need to buy a leather whip, cream, silk, sheets, milk, and cat food.
That's interesting… I really thought it was going to be silk sheets.
But, we’re all pretty good at applying that rule. If there’s one place we confidently insert a comma, it’s between items in a series.
The only question that comes up is whether or not to put the comma before the and that separates the last two items (in this case, the one between cat and milk), which is referred to in the industry as the Oxford comma.
Because there are such compelling arguments on both sides, it’s still optional. Oxford comma opponents claim it creates confusion while proponents argue it reduces confusion, and they’re both right depending on the sentence. Proponents say it maintains the sentence’s cadence while opponents find it useless because the and already creates the necessary pause.
I say please never put me in a room with two people who are debating this issue. It seems as silly as discussing the future of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart when there are far more important issues in the world- like I hear Brad and Angelina are really through this time.
The Oxford comma is really the least of our comma issues. If you want to put it there, great; if you don’t, fantastic.
I’m with Vampire Weekend on this one: Who gives a F@#% about an Oxford comma?