I have noticed that the lowly comma is making a return to written communication. I have missed it terribly over the past several years and so it is good to see it back.
I had always wondered why it got lost. In asking friends and colleagues about it, people would almost brag about not using them, saying they cluttered things up or were old-fashioned. I would disagree vociferously, taking the position that commas make reading easier.
The decline of the comma is due in large part to the absence of teaching of grammar and punctuation during the past 20 years (at least). My kids do not know the parts of speech – what an adverb or prepositional phrase is, not to mention a subordinate clause. And they have attended very good schools. I can clearly remember that by 5th grade, we 10-year-olds could diagram a sentence. (What is that, you ask? See here for an explanation.) Diagramming was a great way to learn to make sense of the complexities and logic of written language.
Another reason is the lowering of standards of written communication due to the reliance on email, IM, and text.
Anyway, in honor of its return and as a way to encourage the Fast Company community to keep the comma coming, following are some of my favorite rules for comma usage:
- To separate components in a series: “John wanted salad, chicken, and macaroni for dinner.” Note that I even included a comma before “and.” It has become optional but is actually useful if I were to say instead of “macaroni,” “macaroni and cheese.”
- In sentences beginning with because or although: “Because it was raining, Brad brought an umbrella.” “Although it was raining, Brad decided not to bring an umbrella.”
- Sentences starting with prepositional or adverb phrases: “When she tried to open the door (adverb phrase), she couldn’t.” “Before you leave (prepositional phrase), turn off the lights.”
- To avoid confusion: “Outside, the light was brighter than he expected.”
There is one more reason to be hopeful about the comeback of the comma: The SAT now tests grammar to some extent. They call it the “writing test,” but it’s really copy-editing with lots of questions about grammar, punctuation, and placement. And we all know that when the tests test, the schools teach.
By the way, I’m no grammar expert; I just like it when writing is easy to read and digest. Or maybe I’m just an old-fashioned girl.
Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates LLC • High-Stakes Communications • Greenwich, CT