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Every day there is at least one question about the use of commas.

A quick search gives 40 pages of questions about how commas should be used.

What’s up with commas? Why is the use of commas (apparently more than other punctuation marks) so problematic to users?

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    Make of it what you will, but such questions are also notably commonplace on our sister sites for German, Spanish, French, and Italian.
    – tchrist Mod
    Sep 8 at 22:55
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    I was actually thinking of proposing a canonical post about paired punctuation (dashes, parentheses, or commas surrounding parenthetical or nonrestrictive elements), which would address many comma questions. I'm still willing to get it started if there is support. (And yes, I know that ELU doesn't have "canonical" posts per se.) Sep 9 at 11:09
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    It is much easier to realize where commas sound terrible. Because really, it's a matter of your own rhetorical rhythm (voice).
    – Lambie
    Sep 17 at 20:33

1 Answer 1

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I think that a big part of the reason for so many comma questions is that guidance for their use (on this site as well as elsewhere on the Internet, in popular books, etc.) ranges from "every comma should be justified by a specific reason" to "insert commas wherever you think they seem reasonable". (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that's not too far off.) With such a variety of opinions, it's no wonder that people don't know what to do!

Perhaps we can try to create some "canonical" posts explaining the common uses of commas and the various opinions that authoritative sources offer for their use.

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    It's too late. There are too many zombies and they've already gotten the brains of most students. Not to mention most teachers. More posts here won't help, since the uses are spread over native and non-native writers, and they come with their own varied prejudices. How many posts here start with "I know that", followed by some BS they've been taught or copied off the net, and still don't understand? Sep 9 at 16:33
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    @JohnLawler I disagree. Commas still help us to disambiguate many sentences, for example. (How else would we know whether that panda was hungry or belligerent?) Perhaps I'm spitting into the wind, but I'm willing to keep trying! Sep 10 at 16:56
  • Some commas can help disambiguate some sentences. Depends on how they're used, and as anyone can see, they are used every which way, like whom. I don't think we could come up with a post about commas here that everyone would agree with. For instance, they're often called "pauses", but if you actually look at a speech spectograph of any comma-containing sentence, you will not see any pause in the stream of speech. What you will see is an intonation dip of a particular kind, and you can hear it, too. That's a comma in speech. Gods know what it is in writing. Sep 10 at 19:34
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    @JohnLawler I agree completely that we likely couldn't come up with a post that everyone would agree with; that was why I thought that it might be best simply to present some of the most commonly suggested options. If that wouldn't be worthwhile, then I accept that. Sep 11 at 0:07
  • I thought the point in SE was to provide correct answers, not just a survey of partial solutions, some contradictory. That's what I'd call "Opinion-based", in the words of the Close menu. Sep 11 at 2:38
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    There seems to be something problematic about insisting here that 'the point in SE was to provide correct answers', when, in other contexts, one argues that it is misguided to think about language in terms of correctness. The last two comments, incidentally, exemplify a meta-disagreement that keeps recurring on this site: see, for example, What is wrong with a discussion of opinion?.
    – jsw29
    Sep 12 at 16:34
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    @jsw29 Just to follow-up on what you wrote: 1) There are many posts on this site that people apparently find very useful that present "surveys" and "contradictory" solutions. (E.g., involving uncertain etymologies.) 2) The help pages explicitly do not forbid "subjective" questions. 3) What I'm proposing wouldn't really be subjective itself but just cite actual advice that already exists in books, in writing classes, etc. Sep 12 at 17:30
  • The only canonical thing about commas would be where they shouldn't go. Unless of course, you are trying to be a writer. Larry, and Isabelle, were not nice people. They should go where one would not naturally pause in speech or reading. That's where.
    – Lambie
    Sep 17 at 20:36
  • @Lambie Yes, that is the kind of advice given in some sources that could be included in the kind of answer that I’m talking about. (Though I think that most people would say that commas should go where one would naturally pause.) Sep 18 at 18:10

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