Comma Clarity (or Lack Thereof)

Posted March 4th, 2013 in Random by Emily Varner

I recently started a new copyediting project, a collection of lectures from a theologian now deceased (which, incidentally, makes querying the author about edits a challenge). I also happen to be watching, and helping where I can, as my first-grader’s reading skills develop. She is doing fine, but her more-developed oral language skills seem to be causing her some problems: the early readers are boring, but she won’t slow down enough on more challenging books so that the words on the page are the words she actually reads. Her attempts to “read” her predetermined meanings bring some of the most fascinating yet maddening moments of my day. It is reader-response to the n-th degree: “No worries if the words aren’t really there; I can make a sentence with similar-sounding words say what I have in mind.”

But the funny thing is, I can see myself doing the same thing as I edit. Last night I was nearly done composing a query (which goes to the compiler/editor, by the way, not the author) when I realized I had read the sentence entirely wrong. Fortunately, I at least had the words right and the problem was one of emphasis and construction, but I had to laugh. Context and style really do take the driver’s seat: our ability to derive meaning out of someone’s written words is severely hindered without these often subtle signals.

In my recent editing work, this has manifested itself in much deliberation over commas. House style for my current project prescribes a less-is-more approach to commas, which runs slightly against the grain for me. But essential commas, of course, have to stay (or, in some cases, be added). Here are some of the words and phrases bringing some additional fascinating yet maddening moments into recent days.

Because . . . (I Said So)
Think about this one for a second.
“Clean up your prose, because I said so.”
“Don’t clean your prose because I said so; do it because you want to learn to be a better writer.”
It seems simple enough in the abstract, but consider how easily this can lead to a situation in which a comma makes the difference between two opposite meanings depending on the rest of the sentence. Whether you see a comma signals how to read and emphasize the phrasing. For example, “The church cannot bring all its resources to bear on present problems, because clergification removed the sense that all members of the believing community are ministers . . .” Now try it without the comma.

That . . . (the World May Know)
“Jesus came that the world may know he is the Christ.” (in order that)
“Jesus came; that the world did not know him was not his fault.” (noun clause)
“Both are sentences that express Jesus’ coming to Earth.” (restrictive relative clause)
These are three valid uses of that, and again, if you’re reading out loud, you need to decide which use it is before the words come out of your mouth or you’ll end up re-reading it. Another lovely can of worms is the use of which. Don’t get me started on that one.

Or . . . (Something Else)
And then there’s the appositional use of or.
“We are not even discussing the use of colons or dashes.” (alternative)
“Em-dashes, or ‘my favorite punctuation marks ever,’ haven’t yet been mentioned.” (“also known as”).
Notice how, in the second example, taking out the commas makes two separate things out of something intended to be identified with one another.

Clarity in punctuation makes a difference–usually between sense and nonsense, but occasionally between dramatic differences in meaning. I offer my thanks to the many professional editors and style gurus helping authors express the things they want to say so that readers encounter minimal obstacles on their way to meaning. I keep learning so much from you in the small contributions I make to that cause. Now back to my commas.