The comma. It’s such an easy piece of punctuation to leave out or add to a sentence, but it can have a powerful effect on meaning. I hope this post shows you just how much the correctly placed comma matters.
Take this favorite line: Let’s eat Grandma. Unless the Big Bad Wolf is talking, the line should be Let’s eat, Grandma. The motto with this one is ‘commas save lives.’
Another favorite example is an actual book title on the topic of punctuation: Eats, Shoots & Leaves. A panda eats, shoots & leaves. I always get a chuckle from this one because it’s so visual for me. Does he have a big meal before shooting and leaving? It’s great fodder for a mystery writer. Remove the comma, and see how the line changes. Eats Shoots and Leaves. Makes much more sense, doesn’t it? Pandas certainly eat bamboo shoots. And they can leave.
Ever see the road sign that depicts children crossing the street? The sign reads Slow children crossing. Children tend to have a lot of energy, for them to be slow when crossing the street, well, I don’t see it. The text should be: Slow, children crossing. Drivers may not heed the sign without the comma in place.
I couldn’t resist including this:.
Another popular example is a teacher asking the class to punctuate this line correctly. A woman without her man is nothing. Apparently all the boys wrote: A woman, without her man, is nothing. All the girls wrote: A woman: without her, man is nothing. Can you see how powerful the comma is? And how the writer’s perspective has an effect?
A British newspaper printed this line: The defendant said his barrister had a history of drug abuse. The same newspaper then printed a correction: The defendant, said his barrister, had a history of drug abuse. Big difference between the two, isn’t there?
Commas can help your readers figure out which words go together in a sentence and which parts of the sentences are the most important. Missing commas tend to confuse the reader. As a writer, you want your readers to keep moving forward on the page, so avoid confusion when you can.
Do you enjoy working with commas? Do you notice examples like the above either in your own writing, or when you’re reading?
Lisa J. Jackson is an independent editor, writer, New England region journalist, and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom.