The Dreaded Comma
Jacob Robbins, Consultant
Here at the Writing Center, we religiously emphasize addressing the needs of the writer over the needs of the writing. In an ideal session, the written work serves only to illuminate the so-called “higher order” needs of the writer such that we can directly help the writer improve not just the piece itself, but also the strategies he or she employs. However, as any writing consultant with a modicum of experience knows, one must often wade through a great deal of apprehension about “lower order” concerns before broaching larger concerns. So many students’ attitudes (including my own) about writing are saturated and informed by the red, deleterious ink of overzealous instructors. By virtue of my past instructors’ methodology, I knew what I was doing incorrectly long before I knew what I was doing well.
There are a great number of relatively minor mistakes whose over inflation causes anxiety in writers of all stages. Perhaps the greatest offender, though, is the failure (perceived or real) to use commas correctly. The number of students who come to the Writing Center seeking guidance on comma usage tells me that I am far from alone when it comes to my difficulties. Their papers bear corrections scolding their comma use, but rarely point out when the student has correctly utilized commas, giving them little understanding of their mistakes.
In fact, it is difficult to outline the rules of comma usage because the term itself is a misnomer. Laws do not govern comma use; rather, it is governed almost exclusively by convention. Correct comma use was never legislated into the English language. Instead, we depend on those who came before us to point the way, and a larger academic community to affirm these revered progenitors. As such, there is no such thing as incorrect comma use in the strictest sense. This is not to say that incorrect comma use is by any means impossible. However, achieving this understanding helps us think of commas as tools of effective communication, rather than obstacles to it. This small, semantic piece of information has helped me a great deal in my struggle to overcome the fear of comma misuse, and sharing this with those I tutor seems to help them in much the same way. Indeed, my experience leads me to believe that reading aloud best helps with understanding comma use, and is certainly far better than barraging students with technical jargon which I barely understand myself. Along with helping the student recognize their own voice, reading aloud is necessarily an exercise that indicates pauses throughout when the student naturally stops to breathe. Pointing these out to the students as opportunities to separate their ideas with commas and let the reader breathe help make comma use far less intimidating.