Commas aren't much to look at—not elegant like the exclamation point nor emphatic like the dash—but they handle enough major roles to qualify as virtuosos among punctuation marks.
And as temperamental performers, they need to be treated with respect and precision. They'll cause trouble when misplaced, as they often are, and cause even more trouble when they are erroneously omitted, from attribution, for instance: In 1912 (,) he said (,) automobiles were fewer and slower. . . . He didn't say it in 1912. Without the commas, the sense evaporates.
Besides nurturing attributions, commas deftly separate clauses, clarify murky sentences, fence off appositives, asides and inessentials, organize series, sunder absolute verbs and direct addresses from the main sentence, and perform a fistful of other important chores.
Despite, or because of, the commas' versatility, they are easily overused. Here's an example from a book of quotations: You can't derail a train by standing in front of it, or not quite. But a tiny bit of steel properly placed . . . .
The first sentence was simple and short, though swollen with commas. Then there are writers addicted to piling on clauses by resorting to commas; writers who specialize in over-long, convoluted sentences of the sort that, in Alexander Pope's words, "like a wounded snake crawl along."
In Pope's day, incidentally, commas were in high fashion and appeared in gaudy profusion. Modern practice has marched in the opposite direction: The fewer commas, the better. Unneeded commas are anathema.
To encourage economizing, I have added a special section, "Doing Without," that summarizes where commas can and probably should be omitted.
Commas may not exactly be "our friends," as a recent style guide proclaims with a 21-gun-salute, but you'll get along with them well enough, provided you understand their ways and avoid the traps they set for the inattentive.
As the bereaved widow in "Death of a Salesman" says, "Attention must be paid." That applies to punctuation generally and doubly to the comma. (33-35)
|The Bavarians knew beauty in abundance.|