Saturday, November 12, 2011

Commas are *not* pauses

This $10.95 book by René Jacques Cappon of The Associated Press is neither remedial nor scholarly. It's a slim, practical, example-filled, in-between sort of book that business professionals and other writers can quickly skim.

Second-grade teacher's good intentions gone awry

The chapter on commas alone is well worth the price of the book and then some. I'm not exaggerating when I say this chapter will change your professional life.

Here's why: Many of us learned in first or second grade that a comma is a pause. Our teacher fed us this fallacy because we were new to the written word and, while scrawling our first sentences in unsteady handwriting, we had to be reminded incessantly to apply a period, a space and then a capital letter. (I have volunteered in elementary schools for several years now, so it's fresh in my mind how much children struggle to remember those seemingly arbitrary details.)

Then, after we get the period-space-capital pattern down, our teacher throws a new form of punctuation at us, the comma. We're startled and we feel betrayed. Our teacher kindly explains, "The period is a full stop and the comma is a pause." We relax a bit and obediently try to apply the new punctuation mark.

Hence, the willy-nilly application of commas

Unfortunately, that's the last time most of us hear anything about commas. Consequently, as grownups now writing professional documents, we apply commas willy-nilly whenever the voice inside our own head hears what could be identified as a pause.


Every comma has a reason for being. Commas are not subjective. They are not pauses.

What makes the elementary-school fallacy particularly destructive is the fact that we don't all hear pauses in the same places. We each have our own syntax, usually without being aware of it. The typical rookie editor tampers with other people's commas, forcing them into spots where they hear a pause and removing them from places where they don't. This is a waste of your company's time and demoralizing to the person whose work you're editing.

Top students use this book

This book, "The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation," will clarify things for you, primarily through examples. Hooray! *Finally*, your ambivalence and errors can be put to rest.

I create and give writing and critical-thinking workshops, including a few different kinds of classes related to copy editing. I use this book only with my top copy-editing students.

Disclosure/clarification: I worked for the AP in the early to mid-1990s, but I don't make any money from the sale of this book. In fact, it was published in 2003, about seven years after I left The AP (and three years after I had already become a writing coach in Silicon Valley.)