Comma Chameleon

Yes, the title is reminiscent of the only song by Culture Club that I can stand, but it fits the topic so….thank you Boy George?

Part of the beauty and frustration of the English language is that it is constantly changing. Not only does this relate to morphemes and phonemes but it applies to punctuation as well. Take the comma for instance. Back when I was slogging through grammar lessons there were some rigid rules as to how commas were used: Put a comma anywhere in a sentence where a natural pause occurs. Place a comma before conjunctions and and but when they occur in a compound sentence. And I recall dozens of little red circles throughout my essays indicating where I had broken these rules (and many others I am sure).

These days though it seems the whole idea of comma usage has become more flexible. Actually it seems that the rules have been tossed aside like so much used tissue. Many rules now state that the use of the comma can many times be a personal choice. Well, which times? Are you telling me that if I conveniently forget a comma before the conjunction and that all will be forgiven because it was my choice not to break out the comma? I don’t buy that for a second.

So, as an English teacher, these days I’ve got commas gathering like ants at a picnic. Students are throwing them into their essays as the panacea for all their grammatical ills leaving me to sort out where they can get away with such frivolity and where it just doesn’t work…for me…because I am the teacher….and it is my personal choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good punctuation mutation every now and again. Some writers use it and the results are pure genius. Take for instance the remarkable poet e.e. cummings. Following is his poem “she Being Brand” where the poet experiments with the rules of capitalization and punctuation (and a few others as you will see):

she being Brand
-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having
thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.
K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her
up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and
again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg.  ing(my
lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity
avenue i touched the accelerator and give
her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on
brakes Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.
        e.e. cummings

This is an excellent example of how a writer can manipulate the way his or her text is read simply by playing with the rules. You are forced to experience this poem just as e.e. cummings had in mind and it makes for intense reading. Notice the way he surrounds the word “dead” with a colon and a period. These are two pieces of punctuation that when encountered, cause a reader to slow down or stop abruptly. So to write it this way “:dead.” Cummings is expressing the finality of the experience. It is a thing of beauty.

he absence of punctuation can be just as powerful. Open up any Cormac McCarthy novel and read a page and you will notice that the lack of punctuation also forces you to read the text a certain way. You must pay very close attention to understand a conversation between two or more characters when there are no quotation marks to guide you.

Many of us have read a sentence where someone forgot to use a period to end it or a comma to break it up and have found ourselves scratching our head and having to go back to reread it. This just goes to show you that punctuation in writing is an important element and one to be considered carefully. Ask yourself how you want your text to be read and then choose your punctuation accordingly.

Word of caution. There is a time and a place for such experimentation and during a formal writing assignment or in a cover letter is not the time. But don’t be afraid of punctuation. Use the fluidity and flexibility of the English language to your advantage…and read more e.e. cummings…..really…..he is brilliant.

About M. Jaynes

A female educator with anger-management issues, M. Jaynes is causing change in the world by inspiring (some may say forcing) young minds to think for themselves and question everything.


  1. A great book on this topic is “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss. Some punctuation (like Mr. Comma) already has very fluid rules, but the whole range can be used to wonderful effect if, and only if, the author knows what he is doing.

    Like with most things, you first have to know the rules if you expect to be able to break them effectively!

  2. hi
    good luck