A sentence should contain no unnecessary commas for the same reason that a symphony should have no unnecessary pauses. True, commas add rhythm, and more importantly clarity, to our writing. But, if we use too many, of them, our writing becomes difficult, for people, to read, and our ideas end up fragmented, instead of connected.
For years participants in my grammar and writing workshops have magnanimously imparted their golden rule for commas: use a comma whenever you would take a breath. And for years I have regretfully but pointedly burst their bubble. That simple rule, which so many have clung to since their tender years, works occasionally (even often, if you’re a speechwriter or playwright), but it also gives rise to the superfluous commas that pollute our prose, bobbing up disconcertingly like plastic bottles in the ocean.
This month’s cartoon is a bit of an experiment. I got an iPad to replace my decrepit laptop and am trying an all-digital workflow for the first time. I’m, uh, not thrilled with these results, but I didn’t have the time to redo it. I’ll keep trying until I figure out something that will work. I haven’t imported my custom fonts to the device yet, so this cartoon is a throwback to the days when I hand-lettered all the dialogue. (Maybe that’s why the whole thing looks amateurish—well, especially amateurish—to me. I hope you’ll forgive me!)
Anyway, what inspired this cartoon were conversations I saw among editors on social media, where a few of us wondered: As we face an existential threat and a massive shift in how we live and function, does it really matter if a compound is open, hyphenated, or closed?
Nitpicking about commas and applying house style seem like such trivial undertakings in the grand scheme of things, especially when compared with what essential service workers do. It’s easy to feel useless and even expendable, particularly when some clients are cancelling projects because of the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic.
But what these recent weeks have highlighted for me is that clear and accurate communication is more important than ever. We have the skills to help public health officials, health researchers, and policy makers get critical information to people who need it and, importantly, to strike the right tone.
This crisis is an excellent reminder that editing is about improving communication, not mindlessly applying rules. We have an opportunity to reassess how we approach a text and separate the edits that help the message reach its audience more effectively from those that do nothing other than uphold arcane notions of language, feed our ego, or waste our time.
Poor communication excludes, and when we all have to solve a problem together, we can’t afford to exclude anyone.
Thank you for coming back month after month! I’m grateful I still have a way to connect with colleagues even though I’ll miss seeing you at the Editors Canada conference this year. I wish you all good health.
Brave enough to share your* most embarrassing editing goofs? Head over to Twitter.
*or [cough] a colleague’s