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Comma Living

by Barb Hampton

As a student in the Vermont College adult degree program, I have become accustomed of late to spending my days in deep reflection. That's probably why a comment in the response to my first packet of schoolwork gave me much food for thought. My advisor, you see, questioned my use of commas. I needed to deal with them, she noted. I thought, of course, that I had dealt with commas just fine. I had always thought of grammatical symbols as related to movement. A period was a full stop. A semi-colon was more of a rolling stop, and a comma a mere "I'll stop twice next time" kind of pause. But, being a good student, I pulled out my copy of A Writer's Reference and turned my attention to the purpose of a comma.

As I delved into the otherwise dry rules of sentence construction, I could hear the instructive voices of my grade school teachers echoing in my ears. Commas separate items in a series, are used to set off quotations, and are involved with dates, addresses, titles and numbers. Nothing new here, really. As in most things I read, however, the further I went into the Rules of Commas, my creative mind began to explore the possibilities, to make connections. In order to make commas truly work in my writing, maybe I needed to allow the Rules of Commas to become a central guiding force in my life?

How would that work exactly? I began to reflect on the first Rule: Use a comma after an introductory word group. Interesting concept, which combined the idea of movement. The last time I was "introduced" to a word group or a new idea, I ran head on into a full examination of the situation, and there wasn't, as best that I could tell, a comma in sight. If a comma was indeed a pause, a moment in which you take a breath and allow some semblance of sense to come into the situation, there was no wonder I was having problems.

I worked my way through the comma rules that followed to see if the pattern held. Commas before independent clauses, as if to set off those moments that could have stood alone. My connections are bound up in my need to be independent in a way that almost creates a stranglehold - no commas there. The next one was even worse. Commas between all items in a series. This would mean that as events started stacking up, I needed a comma once in a while. To do what? Separate the events? Was I even capable of that? No wonder I was having so much trouble with commas. I didn't know when it was time to sit down, to take a breath, to pause. That's when I hit the Comma Rule that required much deeper reflection than the frantic metaphorical frenzy I was involved in at my desk. Use commas, I read, to set off non-restrictive elements. I shut the book and went outside to walk the paths in my garden.

There are times, it seems, when a part of a sentence has to be connected, and times when it should be set off. The lesson goes on to say that it has as much to do with the meaning of the sentence as it does anything else. The non-restrictive clause can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence dramatically, even though the information is helpful. In that situation, you need a comma to let the reader know that the information before the comma was really enough, and what follows is just extra.

As I walked the cedar paths, I kept thinking back about all those times when it seemed as if someone had chopped off that non-restrictive information. In any one of those moments, a comma with a little more information would have served me better than the period life had presented me. Just how, exactly, did one decide which non-restrictive phrase was needed?

As I always strive to learn from the past, I turned my attention to the tasks at hand. How was I supposed to know when it was enough and when I needed a non-restrictive phrase at the end of the sentence? This whole idea of absorbing comma rules into my life began to compound the issues that surrounded me. In the heat of the moment, when the decision was being made, how did one decide what is connected to what anyway? I've got a lot of decisions in front of me at the moment, all of which are piling up. I'm lying awake at night, asking myself all the when, what, where and why questions that go with each choice in this next stage of transition. Restrictive, non-restrictive, coordinated adjectives be damned, no matter how many commas I use, every single decision I make right now is going to affect everything else in my life.

I sat down in the shade, on the bench my husband built under my favorite tree. Maybe I was stretching it too far. Maybe I was making a mountain out of a molehill. It was tempting to toss the whole idea out, chalk it up as one of those ridiculous mental exercises you go through to create an essay for class. But I couldn't shake the opening phrase of my comma lesson. The comma, A Writer's Reference stated, was invented to help the readers. Without it, sentence parts can collide into one another unexpectedly, causing misreadings. I hadn't expected such deep truth from a tiny spiral-bound reference book.

Today I had obviously learned that, without the comma, life got all jumbled together. The items in the series run together and before you know it you're pacing around in your yard on a hot summer day thinking which graduate school you choose next year is directly connected to whether you have time to go to the grocery store this afternoon. In such situations, what was obviously needed was a strong dose of Comma Living. Throw in a comma, take a pause, and put a little space in there to make sure you've got time to breathe. You don't throw out the commas, I thought, you use them.

From the little bench in the yard, I could see the beautiful blooms on the flowers. I could hear the bees buzzing around, the birds chirping in the trees. I turned my attention to the cardinal sitting on the nearby feeder. All I needed today was a comma. A tall glass of iced tea wouldn't hurt. My advisor, it seemed, was right. I just needed to deal with my commas after all.


Barbara Hampton is a long-time resident of a small town in southern Illinois where she has been wife and companion to David for 30 years. Her writing is driven by the variety of roles she finds herself in, including wife, companion, mother, grandmother, financial adviser, student, lay minister, inspirational speaker, group leader and expert on all things chocolate. Previously published in Statements, Barb teaches creative writing in the continuing education program at John A. Logan Junior College. She is studying writing and literature at Norwich University (www.norwich.edu), the adult degree program of Vermont College.

Author e-mail: iriswrit@midwest.net

 

 

[ I Say Tomato! ] [ In the Still of the Night ]
[ Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty ]
[ Comma Living ] [ Spring Branches Lead to Summer ]
[ Fallow Time ] [ Looking Both Ways ]

 

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