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I am currently in the process of collaboratively editing a research paper, and participated in a meeting about it today. During the discussion, the head of the group made a blanket statement about commas, to the effect that it is not fashionable to use too many commas anymore, and that the goal should be to eliminate as many of them as possible.

Is this a valid argument? I thought that the rules for using commas were relatively clear and unambiguous. Is the phrase, "Use commas sparingly" a valid piece of advice? Do I need to quote the "Little Brown" handbook every time I insert a comma into this document? Or has the use of commas become more an issue of "common practice" than one of rigid rules?

Here is an ambiguous sample from the paper, to which I have added a comma for clarity:

This process makes use of commercially available software to read the data files, and custom software to convert the files to a different data format.

...and here is a sample that I consider unambiguous (the comma is required to separate two independent clauses):

The organization does not regulate the data products it receives, and the software application cannot always read the data due to errors resulting from different vendor implementations.

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I, do, not think, your, title, reflects, your question, accurately, :) But more to the point, you should use correct grammar irrespective of how "fashionable" it is. –  Ben Voigt Apr 11 '11 at 23:36
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Maybe the head of your group was thinking of the "eats shoots and leaves" joke? (A panda eats shoots and leaves. A panda that eats, shoots, and leaves is a different matter entirely.) –  JPmiaou Apr 12 '11 at 3:07
    
“I thought that the rules for using commas were relatively clear and unambiguous.” almost made me choke on my coffee. –  Konrad Rudolph Apr 12 '11 at 11:28
    
@KonradRudolph: Perhaps it will be of some comfort to know that most people, won't really care. –  Cerberus Apr 12 '11 at 12:07

5 Answers 5

up vote 7 down vote accepted

[Edited:]

This process makes use of commercially available software to read the data files, and custom software to convert the files to a different data format.

I agree that this comma is a matter of choice. It isn't really necessary, and I'd definitely not use it in short parallel sentences with ellipsis; but in longer ones such as this most respectable authors would feel free to add a comma if it improved readability. I'd use one here.

The organization does not regulate the data products it receives, and the software application cannot always read the data due to errors resulting from different vendor implementations.

There is more or less consensus among style guides that a comma is required between independent sentences without ellipsis. Depending on context, a semicolon might be used here by some instead.


The use of commas is a very complicated and ambiguous matter. The comma in your current title, Is the phrase, “Use commas sparingly” a valid piece of advice?, for example, would be recommended by some style guides but advised against by others. It would help a great deal if you posted a few example sentences that you'd like advice about. A few general statements:

  • The use of commas has decreased over the past centuries; most people probably use fewer commas now than in 1900.

  • The adage "use a comma whenever you hear a pause" is not reliable: yes, there is a relation between commas and pauses, but it is rather vague and irregular.

  • As a very, very crude rule of thumb, I'd say it is usually better to skip the comma when you are in doubt.

  • Reading a modern style book's chapter on the use of commas may be a good start.

  • Expanding/non-defining relative clauses (my house, which I bought last year, is fantastic) are usually separated by commas, whereas restrictive/defining ones (that's the house that I bought) are not.

  • Whenever you separate a phrase or word in parenthesis by commas, make sure you use commas at both ends, not just at one end or the other (unless of course there is a heavier punctuation mark where one of the commas would be).

  • Don't separate the main verb from its essential complements by commas unless some other reason forces you to do so.

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@RobertHarvey: See my edit. –  Cerberus Apr 12 '11 at 0:49

Not so much fashion as readability.

One sentence with one idea is readable.
Two run on sentences separated by a comma is less readable.

edit: Attempt to write a run-on sentence removed - never try and do proper bad grammar on SE!

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That's an argument against complicated (or, God forbid, run-on) sentences. Not against commas. –  Ben Voigt Apr 11 '11 at 23:39
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But your third sentence with another embedded in it not separated by commas is even less readable, no? –  Robert Harvey Apr 11 '11 at 23:39
    
@Robert: The total lack of clarity of the third sentence may be due to a missing space between "in" and "it". –  Ben Voigt Apr 11 '11 at 23:41

Some writers get a bit comma-crazy using the "punctuate by breath" method and they should indeed be reined in. In some academic and scientific writing, authors lean on the passive voice overmuch and add endless qualifications to statements, resulting in comma proliferation.

So... if the intent of the adviser in this case was to actually express the idea that one should write clearly and cleanly, and that comma over-use is correlated with bad writing, then I guess I can give it a pass.

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I think there is a tendency in modern writing to use a comma where previously one might have used a full stop or semicolon. And to drop the comma sometimes where it might have been used by an earlier generation of writers.

In short, I agree with the head of your group. Use commas less often than you see in older writing. But don't be afraid to use one instead of a full stop where the two sentences thus being merged are very closely connected.

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Commas really only need to be used when there is a real reason for a short pause but not enough for a period. Often it's better to leave the way you speak at the door and think objectively about how often you should be "pausing" with a comma.

When you talk to someone, do you really stop, or rather, pause so much, when talking?

In that example, there's only two commas I would leave in. You may pause in those places when saying that line but many people wouldn't, including myself. That's why I believe in the saying.

When you talk to someone do you really stop, or rather, pause so much when talking?

I don't think it's black and white, but some people use commas in places where normal speech wouldn't afford an actual pause, short though it may seem.

Commas placed before "and" (and other conjunctions) are often unnecessary because the conjunction is taking care of the fact that you're joining two related ideas together.

Not only that, many people use commas and even conjunctions where the two ideas are different enough to warrant a new sentence and allow the reader to understand what's being written.

When the battery is turned on, an electric current is induced, and a magnetic field is created.

When the battery is turned on, an electric current is induced. This in turn creates a magnetic field.

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