I have been thinking about the inordinate power of commas.
I had an intuitive understanding of this power from my manipulation of my own prose as a fiction writer. But I credit Martha Kolln’s textbook, Rhetorical Grammar, for making concrete, as an object of explicit study, what my instinctive ear told me. I never succeeded in passing on to many students a real, self-conscious understanding of how vital such a simple little mark can be to communicating precisely what we want readers to hear: there never seemed to be enough time to think much about style in the classes I taught. But if I had it to do over again, I would indulge myself by finding that time. I’ve worked hard not to be the natural Grammar Curmudgeon I am, but by golly, punctuation is a tool! We’ve all seen those fun exercises where simply moving a few little marks around completely changes meaning (a simple example is “Woman without her man is nothing,” which, with just a few tweaks, comes to mean its opposite). But punctuation also controls rhythm and emphasis, and in this regard, the comma’s a tough little drill sergeant, lining up every word in its place.
So: some disquisitions on commas. Rather, on what I think is going on with commas, with thanks for Kolln for systematizing these observations for me.
Today, emphasis. Read this sentence aloud:
There is in fact a reason for what happened.
Now add the commas in the most obvious places, around the “interrupter,” which grammar books tell us commas should, actually, set off:
There is, in fact, a reason for what happened.
To my ear, and Kolln substantiates this, the commas change the intonation and emphasis. In the second sentence, as in all uses of commas in this way, the emphasis is cast on the words before the commas. So the sentence now reads
There IS, in FACT, . . .
So we get increased attention to the “facticity” of what’s being claimed. The meaning hasn’t particularly changed, but the way we hear it has. We get a beat on the FACT of this utterance.
But that’s not all that happens. The commas break up the flow of the sentence, I would assert, in ways that reinforce meter. In this case, it’s our old favorite, iambic pentameter, the most ubiquitous meter for English speakers (Shakespeare’s meter). And that not only asks us to hit “is” and “fact” with extra emphasis, but also “REAson.” So that the sentence reads,
There IS, in FACT, a REAson for what happened.
This effect is, in part, due to what Kolln calls the “it cleft,” which I’ll investigate in a later post. But the commas hammer home the shift to emphasis on “REAson,” telling readers that this reason is going to be the focus of the ensuing follow-up.
I want to look more in upcoming posts at the comma’s power to break up sentences and direct utterance as words transfer from page to mind. For now, do you have examples of how commas control words in your own writing? Decisions you’ve made about how to re-organize sentences to take advantage of this little power tool?