Use Optional Commas to Slow Down a Sentence
Photo credit: Metro UK
Posted by Magnum Proofreading Staff | September 13, 2018 | Comma Corner
The inclusion or omission of commas is often a stylistic choice. Commas are mandatory in certain situations (you can read about such commas in a previous article on comma usage). But, a lot of the time, it is up to the author’s discretion whether he or she wants the reader to take a brief pause between phrases.
One of my favorite books as a child — A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh — includes a lot of optional commas to the effect of moving the action along at a nice, leisurely pace. In the following sentence, we are following Pooh as he sets out on his first adventure. (The red commas are not mandatory.)
“One day when he was out walking, he came to an open place in the middle of the forest, and in the middle of this place was a large oak-tree, and, from the top of the tree, there came a loud buzzing-noise.”
This sentence contains 42 words and multiple independent clauses. Such sentences can be confusing if the author is not careful. However, the above excerpt is straightforward, mostly because of the word choice (all the words are very common, and only the compounded “buzzing-noise” contains more than two syllables).
The inclusion of three extra commas also helps. They allow us to take our time. We’re not in a rush. We’re enjoying our time out for a stroll in the woods.
The same sentence appears below, this time with the non-obligatory commas deleted. Notice how it feels somewhat more rushed than the original.
“One day when he was out walking he came to an open place in the middle of the forest, and in the middle of this place was a large oak-tree, and from the top of the tree there came a loud buzzing-noise.”
Did you notice that this sentence felt more frantic than the original? This is the effect of leaving out commas. This effect is desirable when the writer wants to create a sense of urgency. However, the lack of commas in our example does not fit its content. The author’s stylistic choice of inserting optional commas is a good one.
Another technique authors can use to slow down a scene is to give each independent clause its own sentence. This results in shorter sentences and often eliminates the need for optional commas. Here again is the sentence from Winnie-the-Pooh, written in this manner.
“One day he was out walking. He came to an open place in the middle of the forest. In the middle of this place was a large oak-tree. From the top of the tree there came a loud buzzing-noise.”
By replacing some of this sentence’s commas with periods, the action has become too robotic. This sentence feels colder than the original.
This effect is not always a bad thing. Commas are not strong enough to string along any sentence. For instance, when explaining a complicated concept using difficult words (perhaps in a user’s manual), sentences with simple structures are very useful.
Again, though, this style is not appropriate for the intended mood of the sentence we’ve been analyzing. Pooh Bear, surely, is happiest with the way A. A. Milne wrote it.
Milne, A. A. (1926/1954). Winnie-the-Pooh. New York, NY: Dutton Children’s Books.