In his classic short book on punctuation, Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey says of the comma: ‘The writer who handles this puny little stop correctly and sensibly can probably punctuate as well as need be.’ My work as a copy-editor generally bears this out, but such proficiency is unusual. It’s a tricky mark to master.
One of the first things we learn implicitly about commas is that they’re not normally used between a subject and predicate: Jane cycles, not *Jane, cycles. They may, of course, be needed in pair form if the subject is followed by an appositive phrase (Jane, a city girl, cycles) or a non-restrictive clause (Jane, who is a city girl, cycles).
Jane, cycles is perhaps a misleading example in that the subject is short and simple, and such a mistake would be unlikely from a native-English speaker with basic education. Lengthen or complicate the subject, though, and commas begin to materialise.
In his Johnson column in the 23 Sept. Economist (‘Comma chameleon’, or ‘The power of the comma’ in the online edition), Lane Greene writes:
No wonder novice writers are often at a loss, and put commas where they do not belong. The title of the punctuation-promoting bestseller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” comes from a joke about a poorly punctuated wildlife guide describing the diet of panda bears. But putting a comma between a verb and its direct object is not a common mistake. A much more frequent foible in the writing of inexperienced students, is the habit of putting a comma between a long subject and a predicate (as here).
It isn’t just inexperienced students who do this, as we’ll see. The habit was once common, and part of standard English, but it has since fallen from favour. Garner’s Modern English Usage says it has been ‘out of fashion since the early 20th century’ and is now considered incorrect.
Others concur. Quirk and Greenbaum’s University Grammar of English, for example, says categorically that a comma ‘cannot separate subject from predicate’. Even the descriptive-leaning Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage rejects the practice, saying it is ‘no longer cricket’. Separating the subject and predicate with punctuation, it finds,
is an old convention that has fallen into disuse and disfavor. It was common in the 18th century: [‘What Methods they will take, is not for me to prescribe’ —Jonathan Swift, 1712; ‘The first thing to be studied here, is grammatical propriety’ —Lindley Murray, 1795]. This comma is now universally frowned on and tends to be found only as a vice of comic-strip writers, advertisers, and others who are not on their guard. You should avoid the practice.
The Fowlers devote several pages of The King’s English to analysing examples from newspapers and literature, sometimes unfairly: they denounce examples from earlier times, when the usage was fine. They call it ‘illogical’ and ‘illegitimate’, but they acknowledge contexts where its use is ‘comforting’ because of the length of the subject.
One such example occurs in the leader of the same Economist issue I quoted above:
Even as China’s achievements inspire awe, there is growing concern that the world will be dominated by an economy that does not play fair. Businesses feel threatened. Governments that have seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump, worry about the effects of job losses and shrinking technological leadership.
The subject here is followed by a restrictive clause (that have seen Brexit and the election of Mr Trump) before it reaches the verb, worry. I suppose the comma was added to prevent a miscue in readers’ minds, but I don’t think it’s warranted. Worry points to a plural subject, and Brexit and the election of Mr Trump are not capable of worrying, so the chances of even momentary misreading seem negligible. In any case it’s not hard to follow the main point: Governments worry about the effects of job losses, etc.
Comma use varies greatly between people and contexts, and trends change over time. On Macmillan Dictionary Blog in 2012, I wrote:
From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression.
That a comma considered unacceptable by prescriptive and descriptive authorities alike can appear in the leader of the Economist, an uncommonly well-edited publication, shows the extent of this leeway. Personally I don’t much mind the Economist‘s comma, though given the choice I would have removed it. What about you?
On a broader point, Greene is consistently good on language, and his article is worth reading in full. (Plus, I have an amusing cameo on the subject of serial commas.) We disagree on comma splices – they don’t make me ‘furious’ – but I’ll leave that for another time.
Rereading the great Pincher Martin by William Golding, I noticed the following example:
A segment of storm dropped out like a dead leaf and there was a gap that joined sea and sky through the horizon. Now the lightning found reptiles floating and flying motionlessly and a tendril ran to each. The reptiles resisted, changing shape a little, then they too, dropped out and were gone.
The comma before dropped is eccentric. Then again, the style of the entire book is. (The ‘reptiles’ are seagulls.) Unlike the Economist example quoted above, though, Golding’s anomalous comma was added not for clarity but apparently for prosodic effect.
Here’s an example from Sally Rooney’s excellent novel Conversations with Friends, presumably added because of the length and complexity of the grammatical subject:
I had called her jealous to try and hurt her. I just hadn’t known that it had actually worked, or that it was even possible to hurt her no matter how hard I tried. Realising not only that hurting Bobbi’s feelings was within my power but that I had done it practically offhandedly and without noticing, made me uncomfortable.
This example in Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man may have been influenced by the previous comma in the sentence:
A few years later, Mr Patrick, his wife and staff, were prosecuted and sent to prison for their various acts of sadism during the summer camps they ran on the Isle of Wight.
Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:
Her own house at the end of the headland, was of stern grey stone, the wooden eaves, the window frames and sills painted an unremarkable shade of green.
Alan Furst’s historical spy novel Red Gold has a couple in quick succession; you can see the motivation for each:
Everywhere else felt wrong, was all he knew. Maybe to live the fugitive life you had to start young, for him it was too late. Still, he didn’t want to make it easy for them. Sooner or later, went that week’s motto on the Casson family crest, but not today.
Sometimes a comma is used to divide repeated word. Stanisław Lem, Fiasco:
What happened, happened too quickly for him to follow it.