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
  • The rule for comma placement is this: No matter where you place a comma (or leave one out), some pedant will object. Lawler’s approach is pretty sensible. – Global Charm Mar 19 at 16:54

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.

  • 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

When I was at primary school, I was given exercises to practice and test my punctuation. Often there were 'trick' sentences to make us think a bit. The one I remember was this:-

time flies we cannot so unsteady is their flight

The order of words is part of the problem: it is poetic or apophthegmatic. It might have meant that 'time flies we cannot ... their ...' ah, that doesn't work. So it must mean that 'timing' flies we cannot their <ie the flies'> flight is so unsteady'. So I'll not put a comma after flies. I'll just put one after cannot.

We need some definitions. The online Cambridge English Dictionary has this.

the symbol ',' used in writing to separate parts of a sentence showing a slight pause, or to separate the single things in a list. But it then goes on to quote a more detailed article in which it describes the use of commas to separate clauses. It provides a useful survey, taken from English Grammar Today and fairly expresses the ins and outs of standard usage.

But we should be clear that punctuation is not exactly part of the written grammar, just as vocal inflection is not not part of the spoken grammar, even though punctuation appears in grammar books. So the people who read the Histories of the Ionian historian, Herodotus, or who learned their parts from a copy one of Aristophanes' comedies were not reading something that suffered from the absence of the punctuation which was only developed several centuries later. Punctuation was not invented until nearly two centuries later by another Aristophanes, chief librarian at the enormous library of Alexandria in Egypt, frustrated by the time it took to operate on the thousands of scrolls in this giant collection. The task involved, among others, coping with the fact that different copies key works differed. This was partly because in mass producing a book, you had slaves around a table taking dictation! Also, theatre directors frequently 'improved' masterpieces of Aeschylus and Sophocles by adding their own ideas. Part of the librarians role was establish an authoritative text. Rapid reading was therefore vital. And Aristophanes suggested to his colleagues that they should annotate the texts to separate the words (that's right, they had not separated words either). They used dots at the end of words, some a the bottom, some in the middle and some at the top. You can read the detail here:


A fuller account of punctuation is to be found in Chapter 11 of the Oxford English Grammar (Sidney Greenbaum). It is well worth a read. He warns against relying too heavily in intonation for the placing of commas.

In relation to the comma, in Chapter 11.3, he says that although punctuation marks are often associated with pauses or the raising or lowering of vocal pitch,

such pauses and also intonation breaks (which mark the ends of intonation units but m)ay sound like pauses to the untrained ear) vary considerably in their placement, depending on factors apart from familiarity with the topic, such as the personality of the speaker, the speaker's mood, the tempo of the speech, and the relationship between the participants in the discourse.

He goes on to give an example of cases where "pauses or intonation breaks occur in speech but punctuation marks are not allowed in writing. As an example he gives:

The question that does remain to be discussed concerns notions of political responsibility.

My own inner voice rises in pitch at the end of "concerns". That all being said, It is also true, at least in British primary (US elementary) schools the children are trained to sing the punctuation like little canaries and will no doubt grow up to transpose what they have been trained to hear in their heads back onto the page when they write.

So despite my scepticism, and given that rigid rules are very difficult to established for something designed mainly for convenience and ease of communication, Lawler is offering a reasonable rule of thumb faute de mieux. But have a good look at the citation in the Cambridge English Dictionary.

  • That's funny. To the extent that I can detect my "inner voice" rising and falling in pitch, I'd say that with The question that does remain to be discussed concerns notions of political responsibility, I put emphasis and higher pitch on the highlighted words, with pitch fallinng in between those two. – FumbleFingers Mar 19 at 16:42
  • @FumbleFingers My 'inner voice' let me down. I saw what I wanted to see: "The question that remains" or, possibly, "does remain". The "does" is odd. I suppose I should have to assume a preceding sentence something like: "Thank you, colleagues, <by the way, these two commas I would not intonate> for settling almost all the issues before us. The question that does remain to be discussed...". In that case, I would stress the word 'does' but not raise the pitch. I might or might not raise the pitch after 'concerns', but would not use a comma. But I respect the difference. I shall edit. – Tuffy Mar 19 at 17:05
  • Yes, I see your point (I think). By default, I'm sure we'd say The question that remains to be discussed, and almost certainly we'd both stress remains there even if it weren't for my orthography. But as soon as you add the auxiliary verb does, it's a whole 'nother ball game. And it's still the case for me that I can easily enough use my inner voice to tell me where I might place stress, but I'm far less sure about when is my pitch rising or falling. (Perhaps it's relevant that I'm told I have a relatively monotonic voice! :) – FumbleFingers Mar 19 at 17:14
  • @FF Using a baseball metaphor for the mother tongue is not cricket. But then pitches do seem to have greater variation in India. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 at 17:30

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