I was told that the modern trend is “less commas”. Is that true?
Ignore these so-called “modern trends”—they are usually just an excuse for not knowing the rules. Henry Fowler of Oxford Dictionary fame gave us the rules of modern English just over 100 years ago, and they’ve hardly changed since, despite what “they” might say. Besides which, applying the comma is easy once you know what it’s for.
The comma, the most important of all the marks of punctuation, plays a vital role in preventing misreading and ambiguity. Its use is often described as “to indicate a pause”, but that’s not particularly helpful and is open to interpretation. What’s much more useful is to explain its purpose, which is to denote independence: it separates words, phrases, and clauses that do not rely on nor modify each other—that is, they are independent.
Look at the sentences in this article: five sentences containing six commas, so far (excluding that one). In each instance, if you remove the word or phrase that follows the comma, it has no effect on the word or phrase that preceded it—they are independent.
For example, if I remove the phrase enclosed by commas in my second paragraph, the sentence would read “The comma plays a vital role in preventing misreading and ambiguity”, which is complete and true. That’s the standard test for independence: if, after removing it from the sentence, what’s left behind remains complete and true, then it’s independent and takes a comma. The comma has other uses, but that’s the main one.
When you understand what the purpose of the comma is (or any other mark), applying it is easy.
Style Guide: comma
[Editor’s note: At the risk of appearing pedantic, but I know someone is going to comment on it: “less commas” should be “fewer commas” i.e. commas are countable items not a volume or flow (see fewer vs less vs under).]
October 23, 2015 / Tim McAuley / 0