In this answer, the linguist John Lawler gave the following advice concerning comma placement:

If you would use that intonation in speaking, write a comma. Otherwise don't.

This sounds like as if one could decide for oneself when to use a comma and when not. But I have seen many punctuation guides on the internet that list rules of comma placement (in english). That is why I wonder whether these rules are kind of official rules or just some conventions.

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    Short answer: there is no consensus so universal and so undeviating that you could create a definitive resource for punctuating as a dictionary serves for spelling. For punctuating, there are more like things which are definitively wrong than things which are definitively right. – Dan Bron May 8 '16 at 12:43
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    Yes, there are many different (and often contradictory) sets of "official" rules for comma placement. – Hot Licks May 8 '16 at 14:00
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    English has no official rules. English is an unofficial language - practically an outlaw. – Drew May 8 '16 at 14:24

One certainly can decide for oneself when to use a comma and when not. The problem with Lawler's advice is that commas are a visual tool, not a verbal one. No punctuation is ever verbalized, and when speaking, people often pause where they would never include a comma in writing, and speed through sentences that invite punctuation of various sorts at several points. Furthermore, how can a listener tell from an intentional verbal pause whether this point represents a comma, a dash, a semi-colon, or a parenthesis?

I don't dismiss Lawler's advice, because comma usage often does follow speech patterns. But punctuation is generally intended to aid readability, and how one speaks should be at best one consideration among several in how to use commas. But there are no rules, only conventions. And inasmuch as conventions are, by definition, widely known and adhered to, you can generally assume that writing that abides by convention will be more accessible to more readers than writing that does not.

Of course, as demonstrated by many great writers, the best of the Lost Generation and the Beats, for example, flouting convention is itself often a worthwhile pursuit, leading to the dismissal of outdated approaches in favor of new, more relevant ones, which in turn become conventions themselves in need of overturning. Gertrude Stein once wrote,

So now to come to the real question of punctuation, periods, commas, colons, semi-colons and capitals and small letters. I have had a long and complicated life with all these.

Language is an ever-evolving phenomenon. The "rules" of grammar, IMO, are merely a guideline, a template if you will, that may be, and should be, amended to suit a writer's individual purposes, without alienating his or her intended audience. As Stein implies, punctuation is complicated. And that's what makes it (or the lack of it, in her case) interesting.

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  • Can you break this answer up into a few paragraphs, and maybe add some structure and formatting? It's a bit imposing as just a giant wall of text. – Dan Bron May 8 '16 at 16:59

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