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Peter H Rogers

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What's in a Comma
By Peter H Rogers   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Posted: Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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An opinionated but fun look at the use of a comma in creative writing.

 It’s a little squiggle, a dot with a tail, a tadpole in the realm of punctuation marks, and as a writer, its usage can sometimes provoke controversy.

In the above statement I have placed a comma before and. And placing a comma before or after and is enough to send some pedantic grammarians into a hysterical fit of outrage. It can also earn a red mark from some copy editor’s pen, but this depends on the opinion of the copy editor because some don’t mind.

This is because and is a conjunction (and) serves to link two participle phrases in a sentence. Adding a comma breaks that link, or does it.

This is where I would argue and, in the process, hope to avoid being labelled as a pedantic grammarian for writing this article.

Creative writing is an art form serving the same purpose as an artist painting a picture. The only difference is the medium in which the concept, whether real or imaginary, is displayed using words instead of pigments and colours. As with painting, there are principles for the artist to follow, but those that become famous and are praised for their radical and original use of colour, are the ones that bend and sometimes break the rules.

I don’t like rules of grammar, but I’ll fight through hell and high water for the principles of grammar. In court, a crafty solicitor can use the letter, or rule of the law to excuse the guilty, thus defeating the principle for which that law was created. Jesus Christ taught with parables urging his followers to ignore the rules and laws of Judaism, but instead apply the principle on which those laws were based. No intention to get all religious about this subject intended.

But I believe that the creative writer needs to understand that those who make rules and pass laws always think they know best. They love passing rules and laws following the rule that the more rules there are the more they can enforce. These rules evolve and expand often becoming disconnected from their original purpose leading to the creation of further rules defining the purpose of those made before. Thus some editors will throw an apoplectic fit and daub your manuscript with red pen marks simply because you dared to place a comma after and.

Consider that in every document personally signed by William Shakespeare, he spells his name differently. An examination of contemporary documents increases the number of variations to the spelling of his name, – Shakspere, Shaksper, Shaxpere to give just a few. This didn’t do Shakespeare any harm, but I won’t go so far as to deny the value of correct spelling!

The point is that just as in all other forms of art, the use of language is an evolving process. Whether you agree with modern or conceptual art in their various forms, they cannot be denied as a valid form of expression.

Creative writing has therefore to be just that, creative, even conceptual, pushing the boundaries of rules and laws that only serve to enforce boundaries. The principle in writing anything is to enable the reader to understand the message the writer wishes to convey. It matters not whether this is totally fictional and imaginary or whether containing some fact of knowledge. If the reader cannot understand the message then there is no point in it being written.

The question to be asked is whether putting a comma after and, or any deviation from grammatical norm, increases or decreases the creative writer’s ability to get their message across.

As for the comma, it and that of all early punctuation, is linked to the spoken word. For example, an apostrophe is used to indicate possession, or as in the following, to indicate a missing letter. It’s a simple principle and here it stands in for the missing i from it is. But it could be argued that it indicates possession, something belonging to It. Or could it? You work it out. There are whole books written to argue over the rules surrounding this subject, but what is the principle?

Within the rules of grammar, a comma can be used to indicate a pause where, in dialogue, a breath would be taken, or a pause to allow the listener/reader that finite moment of thinking time before continuing. Therefore, if the writer using dialogue wants to indicate that their character pauses for breath before or after speaking the word and, the use of a comma is perfectly valid.  Alternatively, if the writer wants to force the reader to pause for a momentary thought before continuing, then the use of a comma after the word and is also perfectly valid.

The use of a comma next to and is also justified when applied to bracket a weak interruptive element to a sentence. Note the first sentence in this article:

It’s a little squiggle, a dot with a tail, a tadpole in the realm of punctuation marks, and as a writer, its usage can sometimes provoke controversy.

The phrase, and as a writer, could be omitted without loosing any meaning.

It’s a little squiggle, a dot with a tail, a tadpole in the realm of punctuation marks and its usage can sometimes provoke controversy.

Of course, if I’d put the comma where it should be, after and, thus limiting the weak element to the words, as a writer, a colon would be required after writer instead of a comma. But that is another story.

This is the fun of creative writing. Punctuation serves a purpose, but it should be the purpose that the writer wants it to serve. That purpose is to enable the writer to tell a story that the reader can understand in the context that the writer desires it to be understood. 


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