I like the comma! It is perhaps my favourite among the punctuation marks! Many years ago when I started out as an editor, it was a comfort and joy to work with Kiran, my “commarade”, who an equally ardent follower of the comma! Over the many years of copy editing since then, I am finding that the comma is increasingly dispensed with (as are most punctuation marks, as emoticons take over). Most people see no use or value in it, or maybe they haven’t ever paused to think about it!
Ah commas, these often overlooked tiny squiggles that lend order, and often sense, to a sentence. While a full stop ends a sentence, a comma indicates a smaller break–as a soft pause that separates words, clauses, or ideas within a sentence.
Indeed that is what it was always meant to be. The word comma itself comes from Greek word koptein, which means “to cut off.” The comma, as we know it, was introduced by a 15th century Italian printer Aldo Manuzio as a way to separate things.
While word lovers like us value the comma, it takes a master word-crafter like Pico Iyer to eloquently express these sentiments.
“The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant’s tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer’s smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as the comma — unless it be breath itself?
(In Praise of the Humble Comma. Essay in Time Magazine 24 June 2001)
So there is the humble comma, and then, as I discovered, there is the Oxford comma! The Oxford or ‘serial’ comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list: We sell milk, cheese, and icecream. It is known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.
While this may seem not so important to worry about, this little squiggle before an ‘and’ can create hilarity, or confusion. For example if you write ‘I love my parents, Amitabh Bachchan, and Mary Kom’ without that little squiggle before the ‘and’, you may end up, unwittingly, being the offspring of AB and MK!
A comma, then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and more important, for what the words imply!