Serial comma

I stand accused.

I have been accused of overusing the esteemed and venerable comma. The accusation comes, not from a critic or an editor, but from one of my closest friends, who is also a writing mentor. Because she has my best interests at heart, I know there is no malice intended.

“In the first few pages I felt as though I had gotten lost in a forest of commas,” she said of a recent manuscript.

“What happened after that?” I said.

“It got better,” she said. “The commas tapered off and I got my breath back.”

“You were out of breath?” I said. “From commas?”

“So many phrases,” she said. “So little time.”

I confess I enjoy using the comma. I love the way a comma sorts out a thought, sets up a style, moves the reader comfortably from one end of a sentence to the other. A comma is like a wink. It softens and lubricates the long hard stare of a sentence.

Well, okay, maybe it’s old millennium thinking. However, since I spent a lot of time in that millennium I tend to hang on to many of its traditions. For example, I like to use a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence, for proper names, and for words like ‘I.’

Every generation recreates its language. If it did not, our language would lose its zip and vitality. I applaud many of the language-bending tendencies in today’s email and hypertext culture. But I also defend my right to cling to certain stylistic boundaries.

So I plead no contest. I ask only that those who find me guilty tolerate my affinity for the serial comma.

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