Monday, 12 April 2010

Punctuation (The Comma)

When we’re speaking to someone in a face-to–face situation, we have body language to help us make our point. The way we use our facial expressions; the way we use our hands and the way we pause to emphasise the point we’re making. All these and more help our listener to understand what we’re really saying.

‘He’s not coming?’ said with a grimace and ‘He’s NOT coming?’ have different meanings. The first implies disappointment; the second, surprise.

When we’re writing, how do we explain to a reader what emphasis (and therefore meaning) we’re placing on our words?

Punctuation is the tool that we, as writers, use for this purpose. We’ve already looked at the Full Stop in a previous blogpost. Today, we’re going to explore the ubiquitous comma.

Daphne du Maurier opens her great novel Rebecca as follows: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

Let’s break down her use of punctuation.

She opens with a short dramatic sentence, using all the power of a full stop. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. We want to know what happened at Manderley that was so important the character still dreams of it. Then she segues into a long complex sentence. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

And, with that one sentence, du Maurier sets the scene for what follows. On an overt level the use of harsh words such as “iron gate”, “could not enter” and “way was barred” let the reader know that whatever happened wasn’t pleasant. But, on a more subtle level, du Maurier uses the comma to imbue an unmistakeable atmosphere of foreboding.

How does she do it with only two commas?

Firstly, she controls the ebb and flow of a story’s rhythm by dividing the ideas (or clauses) that make up the sentence.

If she’d used as many commas as she could have, the sentence would have jerked along, rather than flowed with the sense of surreal helplessness that characterised the second Mrs de Winter’s experience of her husband’s ancestral home, Manderley.

Listen to what happens when you add in more commas: It seemed to me [,] as I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and [,] for a while [,] I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

All of a sudden, there are more pauses, more breaks in the rhythm of the sentence, which detracts from the sinister, dreamy overtones. There is also an extra word needed (the ‘as” after the first inserted comma) to make the sentence work with the extra commas.

And that’s a second use for the comma: you can delete unnecessary words. The original use of commas not only slowed the pace to create a specific atmosphere, but also used fewer words to do it.

Thirdly, when a comma is used with a conjunction (a word such as ‘and’ that links simple sentences), it can connect or contrast themes and subjects. Here, du Maurier has used the comma to contrast different ideas.

The object of the first main clause (or idea) of this sentence is “the iron gate”. The subject of the sentence is the “I” (the narrator) and the verb is “stood”. The object of the second main clause (or idea) of this sentence is “the way” (or the path). The subject of the sentence is again the “I” (the narrator) and the verb is “enter”.

The first comma du Maurier inserted divided the two main clauses (“I stood by the iron gate” and “I could not enter”), but contrasted their themes. With the first sequence of main and sub-ordinate clauses (“it seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive”), the idea is that the narrator can open the gate to access Manderley. At this point, the reader may still think that what awaited the new Mrs de Winter at Manderley was good. Then comes the comma, the conjunction and, immediately, a contrasting idea is presented: “for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”

After the “I could not enter” clause comes the second comma. What does this use of the comma at this point in the sentence achieve? It gives the reader a pause, a moment to absorb the shock of realising that, despite the gate leading to the drive, the narrator was, after all, not going to pass through that iron gate “for the way was barred to me”.

So there we have another use for the comma. This time, the comma had the dual purpose of giving the reader a chance to absorb the contrasting idea and clarifying this idea with the sub-ordinate clause “for the way was barred”.

This example has shown how the comma, in the hands of an experienced author, can:

• change the rhythm of the text

• maximise word economy

• contrast different ideas (or link similar ideas)

• clarify or emphasise meaning

So, the next time you need to make your sentence plod or sing, dance or drag, remember the common comma. For, used effectively, it can create magic.

"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman

Image source: 


Bish Denham said...

I love the lowly comma. I probably use it too much. But...I love the lowly comma.

Helen Ginger said...

Instead of stressing over when and where to use commas, writers should heed your advice and listen to their words and what they mean to determine how to use them to enhance and give deeper meaning to their words.

Straight From Hel

Judy Croome said...

BISH: I love the lowly comma too! (but not as much as I love the !) :)

HELEN: We think alike. Inserting commas at one's discretion by following the rhythm of the sentence is my preferred choice as well.

Cold As Heaven said...

My favorite is the semicolon, but not sure if I use it correctly. I probably use it in cases where I should rather use comma >;)

Cold As Heaven

Helen Ginger said...

That last clause also tells more than that the way was barred. It gives the reader a sinking feeling because the way wasn't just barred. It was barred to her.

Straight From Hel

Judy Croome said...

COLD AS HEAVEN: The semi-clon does have a nice bite to it, doesn't it? Watch out for my nxt punctuation blog-post; it''l deal with the semi colon. (There! I couldn't resist sneaking one in)

HELEN: Of course! That 'for me' clause does add an intimate feel to the danger.