Monday, September 10, 2007

The Comma in Hiding

There was an interesting editorial in Newsweek about a month ago about the comma and its usage. Ok, most people wouldn't find it quite so interesting, but I thought it was fascinating that someone else felt the same way I do about the comma. No one seems interested in the poor little dear these days. The comma separates ideas from each other during the course of the sentence, and I think it's one of the most useful pieces of punctuation.

Reading a lot of web writing as I do, I see so many pieces that don't contain a single comma. The sentences are supposed to be shorter and less complex in web writing, hence the need to plow through each sentence as quickly as possible with nowhere to rest. No pausing. No time to pause.

When editing other people's work, I also find that the comma is misused often, and more often it's completely absent. I believe that as people get more accustomed to reading web writing, they begin writing that way instead of the way it is most often written in books. And that's fine, as long as they are able to tell the difference between the two. The short, get-to-the-point style that so many want online is probably the best way to quickly get across non-fiction such as instructional materials, and it's probably best for articles formatted with several steps for the reader to follow.

But is it really best for medical articles? Editorials? Essays? I don't think it is, though I maybe in the minority. I believe those who are seeking to read more complex material will likely be insulted by simple syntax that questions the intelligence of the reader. So, I'll keep my long sentences where I think they will be appreciated, and I will chop them into little pieces for the places where they won't be. But someday, I intend to write the most fantastically long sentences just because I can- think Virginia Woolf's two-page sentences from Mrs. Dalloway. Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout.

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