I love commas.
Commas are the most useful and versatile punctuation marks in the writer’s typography toolkit. They can be used to separate, to highlight, to assign relative importance, or to set aside material that is interesting but not essential. Their most often overlooked power, though, is that commas allow writing to imitate the rhythms of speech.
Think of it: your speaking voice uses momentary pauses and changes in intonation to add depth to your communication. Writing can’t achieve that subtlety. Sure, we can use italics and boldface and underscoring to suggest emphasis in varying degrees, but those are crude techniques when compared to the adaptability of spoken language.
Commas change the equation. They are the punctuation equivalent of verbal pauses and stresses. Can they do everything the spoken voice can do? Surely not. But commas add a new dimension to written communication, and enrich the writer’s ability to send a complete message to his or her intended audience.
Some writers never recover from the day they discover the “gosh, wow!” power of a well-placed comma. They start to look on prose with a missionary zeal, much as Johnny Appleseed once looked on the landscape of the Midwest—only, instead of planting orchards, today’s writers begin to drop commas everywhere. Everywhere. There is no sentence, they seem to believe, that can’t be improved by a fistful of commas.
If one of these giddy writers is producing content for your professional website, hang onto your hat. There’s a storm brewing.
When Bad Punctuation Happens to Good Website Content
Curiously enough, intrusive extra commas most often show up in only a couple of situations:
- Compound subjects or objects of two items, such as “Dad and Mom,” “between the hip and the knee,” “driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”
- Between the subject and the verb of a sentence.
You might think that the limited number of typical occasions for comma overload should make detecting and avoiding excess commas easy, but you would be wrong. A writer grows accustomed to his own writing quirks, and usually cannot recognize a lapse from good style. Other readers—including the potential clients and customers you are counting on to keep your business profitable—react to these extra commas as roadblocks to their progress on the webpage.
What happens next is the same thing that happens whenever an error in usage, spelling, or grammar interrupts the flow of reading. Some readers will grimace and press onward. Some, though—especially those who find reading a challenge—will click on your competitor’s website instead to see if it offers more inviting material. You don’t want this to happen.
Would You Buy a Secondhand Comma From One of These Writers?
Let’s look at some actual examples of superfluous commas in content that has reached my desk in recent weeks. As always, there have been minor changes in some of the details to prevent embarrassment to the writers involved:
- Your home is so much more than just four walls and a roof. It has memories and provides protection, and shelter to your family.
- The sooner you put a criminal defense lawyer on your side, the better off you and your family will be now, and in the long run.
- Read on to learn the possible hazards, some lifesaving features can cause.
- Now it is you, and your neighbors, who can seek justice.
- There are outstanding medical bills, or funeral costs, that need to be paid.
- Truck companies will do anything to make a profit; read on to learn how their employee regulations, could affect your family’s lives.
- Yet, you may want to be honest about what happened so that they, and their families, can learn about the warning signs of nursing home abuse and neglect.
- However, you can’t expect that the doctors, or the hospital staff, who were involved in your loved one’s care are going to simply tell you that they made a mistake.
The key fact to keep in mind is that every comma functions to insert a break in the flow of a sentence, just as a vocal pause breaks the flow of spoken English. If you are inserting a comma in a place where there should be no break in the thought, you’re probably using the comma wrong. You do not want to break the junction when two nouns (or noun phrase) make a compound subject or a compound object of a preposition. You do not want a break in the thought between the subject of a sentence and the noun. If you are tempted to seed a sentence with commas in those positions, stop and reconsider before moving forward.
Need More Writing Advice? That’s Our Thing!
It’s sad to see when commas—did I mention that I love commas?—spring up like thistles in an otherwise well-tended essay. When that happens, there’s nothing to be done but have a proofreader or editor uproot those commas like weeds. Your business website content will be all the better for the attention.
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