Comma comma comma comma comma chameleon, you come and go, you come and go

photo of Boy George

Karma can be brutal, so HT to Boy George and Culture Club. I love you, Boy.

I edited a dissertation once for a client who called her supervisor The Comma King: “He’ll delete a comma here, insert one there—it’s totally random.”

She didn’t know she was complaining to a hard-core commatologist.

I understand her frustration. Until a writer learns the rules that dictate comma placement—and understands the rules are fluid—commas can seem arbitrary. When I encounter a long, complex sentence in a piece of writing I’ve been hired to edit, the first thing I do is try to break it into shorter sentences. Whether or not I succeed, I typically add the Oxford comma, remove a couple of commas-by-sound that indicate where the writer paused to take a breath, insert a comma or two to set off a non-essential clause (often the first is there but the second is missing), and remove one or more in a string of adjectives (because some of the adjectives are coordinate and thus take a comma, whereas some are cumulative and do not).

Some writers litter their sentences with unnecessary commas. Others don’t bother using punctuation at all. You’ve probably seen the internet memes about commas saving lives. You may even own the t-shirt.

Punctuation matters, of course. But do commas warrant a whole field of study called commatology?

In fact, commatology is the collecting and study of postmarks, not commas, but even people who collect and study postmarks don’t call their hobby commatology anymore. They call it marcophily.

After the word commatology flashed into my consciousness that day on my stationary cycle, I Googled it to see what I could learn. I discovered that, apart from a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses who clearly understand the power of a misplaced comma, no one uses the term. Even the marcophilists don’t want it.

I do.

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