Commas, what is the point of them anyway?

Today I’ve been revising the various rules about correct comma usage. And I’m somewhat appalled at the absurdity of several of them. Who made up these rules anyway? What exactly is the purpose of a comma?

For example – this is apparently correct:

Jim carried the ladders, and his partner cleaned the windows.

It is apparently correct because there are two clauses in the sentence which can exist without being joined. SO WHAT? What is the point of the word ‘and’ then? Would anyone not understand this sentence if it excluded the comma? Really?

Another example this time of an introduction taking a comma.

‘In ancient Rome, it was considered good practice to eat while lying on your side.’

The purpose of this comma? Do we need to punctuate this sentence with a comma? Would it really be so bad if people decided where to take their own breath? Is ‘ancient Rome’ so important as context that we need to dwell on it longer than the rest of the sentence?

More supposedly correct comma madness:

“Yes, Mark, that is correct.”

But we already capitalise Mark to indicate he is a person! Why do we need to separate the word as well? Does ‘Mark’ have herpes or something? Try reading this out loud and take a pause at each comma – does it sound good? Not to my ears. It sounds like the speaker is being sarcastic or aggressive. What if they are agreeing with Mark or congratulating him? Surely the important part of the sentence is the ‘correct’ or the ‘yes’ part?

And the mess all this comma prescription gets us into:

‘I can not attend on Wednesday. However, I will attend next week.’

All to avoid the awful crime of this incorrectly punctuated variation:

“I can not attend on Wednesday, however I will attend next week.”

Apparently you must not place a comma before ‘however’ they say. Why not? The rules insist on ‘and’ being  desecrated with a preceding comma. Is this a case of separate clauses or just rules for the sake of rules? I would take a breath where the second example indicates unless I’m seeking to make a big point about attending next week.

So it appears that rules have reigned comma usage for eons. I wonder how many good sentences have been ruined in the process and how many debates and re-writes have resulted? Why not simply use them to avoid ambiguity or to denote breath taking in a longer sentence? I can hear the chorus of disapproval from purists even as I write the words (without commas).

And lastly consider the Oxford comma. Why? Does this extra mark add anything at all?

“I bought oranges, apples, and bananas.”

“I met Aunt Lucy, Jim, and Peter.”

If we needed to know in what combinations surely it would be better to break up the sentence and avoid the possible ambiguity? If Aunt Lucy is on her own or with someone then simply state that facts we need to read.

So I’m off to howl at the moon and immerse myself in more important things while contemplating the rule book. So much for easily read script and smoothness of language. Far better to pepper the page with commas. Yeah right! Rant over.

Happy reading

D.M. Jarrett

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