Authorguy's Blog

Spell it like it sounds

Posted on: July 2, 2011


Yes, I’ve heard about the Oxford comma ‘controversy.’ No, I don’t think it’s all that big a deal. To be honest I think it’s more about printers trying to save ink and paper. I prefer it, to be honest, and will continue to use it.

Languages are living things. They grow, they change. New word usements get structured, old ones fall into disuse. Languages are tools, meant to convey an experience of the world. As the world changes, so do they, and the world can change in lots of ways, in time or in space. Travel from the north of France to the South and a common word will vanish, or a new one crop up.

Referring to dictionaries is no way to solve anything for an author, since the whole idea behind being an author is to come up with new stuff, while dictionaries are records of what has been done. Similarly grammarians capture try to codify rules for the use of languages, but only when it’s too late. It’s an exercise in futility to tell someone they shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition when just about everyone does.

There’s a  certain feeling of artificiality about such rules. It’s like they were created not for any real reason, but simply to distinguish one group of people from another, even though they all spoke the same language. I do accept some rules, but only when I can see a valid logical or philosophical point to them. I’m picky about proper use of pronouns, for example, but only because I see a difference between the thing that acts and the thing that gets acted upon.

In the same way, the purpose and use of syntactical elements like commas in a sentence should be determined by the sentence as it would be said. A written scene on the page is only supposed to be an approximation, a representation, of a scene in the world of experience. The use of syntax is meant to capture that realism. Commas are used to indicate pauses in the way people talk and think. They are the joints in the body of a sentence, allowing a transition from one thought to another. A long sentence without commas is like a leg without a knee, which is fine as long as the leg doesn’t need to bend. A long sentence that contains only one thought need not contain any commas in spite of the high or low number of words large or small which compose it. Or, I suppose, it may, but not, I think, as many as this, necessarily.

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2 Responses to "Spell it like it sounds"

Hmm, I would disagree with you that “commas are used to indicate pauses in the way people talk and think.” In fact, I believe commas are used to provide clarity to the written word so that, when one is reading, one can easily understand the idea contained within the *written* sentence. Sometimes, the place a comma holds is the same place a person might pause when speaking or thinking, but the absence of a comma on a page does not mean the same sentence, spoken, might not have a pause at that moment nor does the presence of a comma dictate a pause when reading aloud.

That’s just how I choose to use commas, of course!

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It’s like the old joke, where the English teacher slows down but doesn’t completely stop for a Stop sign, and gets a ticket from a former student in the police department. “Sorry, Mrs. Jones, that’s a period, not a comma.”
Commas provide a great deal of clarity. I once took a Philosophy class where i had to read a 500 page book that was only as short as it was because all commas had been removed. It was torture. Not to mention the book sucked.

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