Hello, Comma

I recently read through my first big batch of student essays for this year. Some were good, of course; others could have benefitted from a bit more care and attention.

But most of the essays, weak or strong, contained a fatal flaw I recognize all too well. I’ve seen it everywhere, from past years’ essays to friends’ e-mails.

Apparently, people of all ages just don’t have time to use commas these days.

The word comma comes from the Greek komma, which means “something cut off” or “a short clause.” The concept dates back to the 3rd century BC. Aristophanes of Byzantium had developed a system of single dots to separate verses (colometry) and indicate to the reader how much breath would be needed to complete each fragment of text aloud. The different lengths of the passages were signified by the location of these dots.

At the time, the word komma referred to the short passage itself, for which the media distinctio dot was placed mid-level. Eventually, the word “comma” came to refer to the dot, rather than for the clause it separated. During the 16th century, a slash was added that dropped to the bottom of the line and curved, thus giving the comma the shape we recognize today.

My students likely weren’t thinking of the rich history of punctuation though, as they hurried to complete their essays in class. To be fair, they had only a short block of time to get quite a lot done: They had to choose a side to defend, develop three strong arguments using examples/quotes from their books, and put it all together in a way that was clear and easy to understand. I can understand that in their zeal to complete a decent essay on time, they might have felt the need to “trim the fat” and cross comma use from their list of concerns.

It’s not unlike when I cross “go to the gym” off of my daily schedule. On a packed day, the gym is the first thing to go–even though going to the gym is actually more important than, say, watching “Top Chef.” And I always have time for “Top Chef.”

A few years ago, my students were quite shocked to learn that when writing a direct address, we must use a comma between a person’s name and the greeting (“Hello, Sally”) or to set set off the person’s name from the rest of the sentence (Would you like to go to the mall, Sally?).

“That’s ridiculous!” they shouted. “That’s too many commas!”

Of course, it would seem like too many to them. They never used any.

“But the comma is necessary,” I said, trying to stave off the riot. “You need to show that you are talking to the person, not about the person.”

I told my students to think about the difference between, “Are you ready to eat, Grandma?” and “Are you ready to eat Grandma?” They calmed down after that, although comma use remained an uphill battle for the rest of the year.

This year, in another attempt to drive the point home, I plan to share with my students the old legend of the man whose life was saved by a comma:

There is an old story of Czarina Maria Fyodorovna who once saved a man’s life simply by misplacing a comma in a notice written by her husband Alexander III. The note was supposed to read “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.” The man was set free after the Czarina misplaced the comma to read “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” His life was saved, simply due to a thoughtlessly misplaced mark of punctuation.

So please, folks, use commas.

You never know whose life may depend on it.

Next Week: Learning to Listen


Writer and educator Sara Goas is a graduate of Lycoming College, and she specializes in creating content for the web. Her site saragoas.com has more examples of her work.

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