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Friday, December 13, 2013

All Cranked Up: The Trouble with Leaving Out Commas

Might as well accept it: this blog is my cranking place! Sigh! Well, it is what it is, so here are a couple of peevish items for December:

First, here’s a sentence quoted from an advance reader’s copy of a novel reviewers are asked not to quote (and I take the liberty because I am not reviewing the book, and it came out in 1996, anyway): “The olive-green river slid smoothly between the high ochre buildings and the soaked terracotta roofs seemed luminous.” And yes, I would have used a comma before the “and” that joins the two independent clauses of this compound sentence. Why?

A visiting writer-researcher in the midst of a book she intends to self-publish told me recently, very, very firmly, that a comma was not necessary in a compound sentence. Oh, really? Well, here’s my problem: I’m reading along and I see the subject-noun phrase “river slid,” the preposition “between,” and then along comes “buildings,” obviously an object of the preposition, and there’s that conjunction, and then there’s another noun, “roofs,” and without no comma between the two independent clauses, I’ve been set up to read “roofs” as a second object, i.e., “between the buildings and the roofs,” which doesn’t make much sense, but that’s where the punctuation leads me – and then along comes another verb, signaling a second independent clause, and I have to backtrack and re-read the sentence! Damn, that’s annoying!

Two paragraphs down the problem occurs again:

“It was the ideal time to walk about and look at the city and the Marshal and his wife were always saying....”

You see what I mean? “It was ... time to walk .. and look at the city and –.” Huh? Look at the city and the Marshal and his wife? No, not at all. Well, how much trouble would it have been to use a comma before “and the Marshal”?

Writers who omit the comma in the compound sentence are probably the same people who come to an intersection and fail to signal their turns. Even if you are “following the highway,” how are other drivers supposed to read your mind and know that? Which way are you going? Give me a clear indication! Don’t leave me standing here on the curb when I could have crossed safely, and don’t make me read every one of your brilliant sentences twice, please.

The woman determined not to use commas in her compound sentences was also planning to write a history book without an index. Need I say more?