In grade school, it was taught that commas represent pauses in speech. The teacher often said to read sentences aloud and place commas wherever there was a short pause.

Yet there are various authorities online that say this is a terrible idea. For example, Larry Trask tells readers that "this well-meaning advice is hopelessly misleading."

But then there are also some that are for the punctuate-by-breath method. Daily Writing Tips writes:

These rules may seem complicated. But there’s a simple test that usually works: When in doubt about whether or where to place a comma, read aloud the sentence in question, and visualize the comma as a hook that briefly makes the sentence run in place. If you hesitate or pause, insert the hook in the sentence to mark that place. If you don’t, don’t.

Is it a reliable rule of thumb? Or something that should be abandoned altogether?

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    Aside from other usages, like lists, use commas when they help with clarity (like parsing thoughts correctly), or with the cadence you intend. That will usually be at pauses, but not every pause needs a comma. – fixer1234 Jul 24 '17 at 1:04
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    This rule of thumb leads to people using commas instead of semicolons, it's a good way to generate run-on sentences. But other than that, it works pretty well. – Peter Shor Jul 24 '17 at 1:06
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    Another "rule" is "When in doubt, leave it out." It's easy to insert too many commas. – Hot Licks Jul 24 '17 at 1:46
  • I start with the real rules and use the sounding-out to finesse the clarity and cadence that @fixer1234 introduced. Perhaps the sound rule applies best to native or fluent speakers who can truly rely on the ear to dictate the comma. – Yosef Baskin Jul 24 '17 at 3:50

I think the answer you are looking for is more a question of what you are attempting to write at the time.

If for example you are writing a book, story, letter. Then you would be safe using the comma on breath method because you are attempting to set a mood or reach people on a more personal level.

If however you are writing a report, essay or anything of a more formal nature. Then the writing itself should be of a more concise style and naturally not need an excess of commas. In this case you would tend towards the more strict rules.

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