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The comma: Overused and misunderstood

By Nia Ashley on July 25, 2013 in Interviews

Comma Story

English teacher Terisa Folaron is the educator behind the TED-Ed Lesson Comma Story. The Lesson stars a helpful comma on a journey to support sentence construction. We asked Folaron about her Lesson and why we have such problems with the “clever comma.”

Why is the comma so important?

Commas save lives! Let’s eat, grandma! vs. Let’s eat grandma! I’m sure your grandmother would appreciate your inviting her to lunch much more than she would your eating her for lunch. Just ask her.

The Internet is filled with urban legends, links to historical documents and funny memes, all in their own way, extolling the virtues of proper comma placement. The more infamous cases include Czarina Maria Fyodorovna, who transposed a comma and accidentally saved the life of a criminal, and the Million Dollar Comma incident of 1872. Due to a misplaced comma, the United States government lost a million plus dollars by accidentally categorizing certain plants as duty-free. With all the hubbub regarding commas, one might think that figuring out commas was easy.

The comma is such a tiny fragment, such a small wisp. Yet for being so small, it is able to create order amongst ideas, names, numbers, dates, and lists of items.

Why don’t we know how to use the comma properly?

Some of the rules are more stylistic choices. I, like many of my peers, grew up hearing that commas should be placed wherever there was a pause in a sentence.  While this advice sometimes works, it shouldn’t be applied as the norm. The “pause rule” can be traced back to 200 B.C. in Egypt. Aristophanes, a librarian, devised a three-part system of notation. Aristophanes’s earliest form of the comma advised actors when to breathe as they read their lines. Many centuries later, the pause rule still persists with writers positioning commas according to the perceived need to inhale. Language evolves, and rules change. For this reason, some grammarians refuse to refer to the rules as “rules”, opting instead for the more user-friendly term “grammar guidelines.”

What motivated you to turn the comma into a character?

As an educator, I discovered that changing elements of grammar into characters helped my students visualize what was taking place in their sentences. Some of the characters in my grammar discussions have been passed down to me, from other educators. The acronym for the conjunctions FAN BOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) is commonly taught. Because commas take on different roles in different situations, I needed a character that could assess a situation and determine where its help was required. TED-Ed did a magical job of bringing the characters and some common comma predicaments to life.

How can we get better at properly using punctuation? 

Thankfully not all rules (or guidelines) are fluid. There is good writing, and then there is writing that causes confusion. Correct comma placement helps writers effectively communicate with their readers. It may also save both of them some serious cash. When in doubt, locate sources of writing and writing tips that you can rely on. My go-tos include: Grammar Girl by Mignon Fogarty, The New York Times, The OWL at Purdue University, and my local grammarians.