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Saturday, June 5, 2010

A Lesson from "A Dash of Style" - The Comma

One of my favorite authors is Cormac McCarthy. His stories, on the surface, always seem so abysmal. McCarthy has a way of exploring the evil depths humanity can sink to that makes us question our own inclinations toward dark behavior given the right circumstances. He makes us ask ourselves "if I were in that situation would I - could I - be capable of such depravity?" And the reason we even consider asking ourselves such a question is because the situations are so extreme, yet fully believable.

I readMcCarthy's The Road in three days, and I didn't sleep for three nights after. It left me anxious and jarred and horrified all at the same time - all despite the spark of light, the slim trace of hope, McCarthy weaved in at the end. It was the journey along The Road that shook me.

The amazing thing about this book, besides the Pulitzer-winning story and writing, is the lack of punctuation. McCarthy is known for using minimal punctuation, but in The Road the lack of punctuation anchors the story. In a dead, gray world stripped of everything where the man is simply called "the man" and the boy simply called "the boy", commas would be superfluous.

But McCarthy doesn't forgo commas and other punctuation to emphasize a stripped and wicked world - minimal punctuation is McCarthy's creative style - his effort to write as simply as possible with as little interruption as possible - to write powerfully without those "weird little things" (McCarthy calls punctuation) getting in the way. McCarthy believes, "if you write properly you shouldn't have to punctuate." And he's darn successful at it.

Because commas are the most abundant punctuation mark used in writing, their near absence in McCarthy's writing is the most noticeable. But only at first. A few pages in, you feel like you're walking along that road with the man and the boy, and punctuation is the last thing on your mind. Only a true master of grammar could create such vibrant prose by bending the grammar rules we are all so accustomed to. McCarthy had to fully understand its use before he could mold it into a simpler and freer form.

Of course we can't all be Cormac McCarthys, but we can strive to master grammar so that we can better use it and, yes, even bend it to fit our creative style. According to Noah Lukeman, the comma is the hardest of all punctuation marks to master. But once you have it, use it to your creative advantage. Here are some key points from "Chapter 2 THE COMMA" in Lukeman's book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation:

  • The comma can be used to divide a sentence or to connect two sentences, and with that power, it can change the meaning of a sentence.

  • "Not only is [the comma] the most flexible, not only are its uses the most varied, but is also carries few rules and has been used (and not used) by great authors in many different ways"

  • "It is the glue that holds a sentence together."

  • It provides clarity when conveying several ideas in one sentence.

  • It pauses and allows the reader to catch his breath.

  • It can be used to indicate the passing of time - Example from Lukeman: Lynne Truss addresses this point with an apt story in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: "Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: 'Why did you have a comma in the sentence, "After dinner, the men went into the living room"?' And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. 'This particular comma,' Thurber explained, 'was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.'"

  • Writers misuse the comma more than any other punctuation mark. Most by overuse.
  • Too many commas make the reader feel they are moving in slow motion.

  • "Sometimes commas are simply unnecessary" (even when they are technically correct). "Some sentences work with a comma, but also work equally well without one. If so, it is preferable to omit it."

  • "The comma is one of the only punctuation marks so widely used that its ommission is a stylistic statement."

  • Omitting the comma speeds the pace.

  • "Omitting commas can help achieve a stream-of-consciousness feeling."

Post by: LWC Director Karen Aldridge. Visit her personal blog site at My Writing Loft.