As someone who likes a minimalist aesthetic, I tend to use commas as minimally as possible. Don’t want to muddy up the page with extra marks. Although I will fight to the death for the Oxford comma. Commas in a series aside, I often forget the “rules” for using a comma anyway. I tend to play it by ear.
This morning I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, a collection of tiny essays about…delights. Anyway, I read this sentence, “Next to that house butterflies dapple the hedge of buddleia, their wings listing in the moist Indiana heat.” Maybe it was the unfamiliar vocabulary, maybe it was because I was tired, but I had to read that sentence a few times until I understood it. Next to that house (pause) butterflies dapple the hedge of buddleia… Ah, a comma would’ve really helped me out there. But I did delight in that sentence–the picture it painted, the precise words chosen, the syntax used. It made me wonder if at times a comma is purposely omitted to force the reader to read over and over to get it right.
And maybe I need to remember this wondering when I’m reading students’ writing and delight in the rereading of their words.
Delight often comes in slowing down, as you’ve explored here. If we’re lucky, commas help us do that. I use them far too much, love to take a breath whenever I can. (You just caused me to pause and lift my eyes to the Ross Gay poem I have posted above my desk, “Sorrow Is Not My Name.” Lots of delightful pauses in that!
I love that little book, and I’d argue for no comma in the sentence. The butterflies are an integral part of the house in my reading. Ross Gay is an intentional writer, so I’m thinking about what he’s communicating about the house as much as what he’s saying about the butterflies. I take a function first approach to punctuation. Maybe the important point is the pause we’re forced to take when a comma or the absence of one forces us to stop and reflect. Maybe that’s why Gay omitted the comma, to force us to delight in the unexpected. This little essay would be a wonderful discussion starter w/ older students.
Yes, I really think Gay wanted to force us to delight! I’d love to hear what kids think–good idea to bring it to older students.
One of my favorite books. I must automatically put commas in as I read. My 8th grade teacher gave me the habit of putting commas everywhere, and I have to learn to add them sparingly and listen intently. Wonderful post!
Thanks Joanne! And also, it was lovely meeting you on Zoom this weekend!
First of all I think I’m going to have to add this book to my “to be read” pile. I might also be with Patricia to some degree. As someone with her roots in storytelling, I like for people to be able to “hear” my voice and phrasing where I can.
That said, Glenda had an important point about the use (or non-use) of that punctuation as a craft move. I’ll have to think on that!
Yes, do. It really is delightful. I read about 3-4 essays a day depending on how long they are. I’m going to have to pick up the pace though because it’s due back at the library soon. Although, I think I may need to buy it because it’s one of those books you want to pick up again and again.
I feel the same way about people “hearing” my voice!