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Teaching commas won’t help

By Dennis Baron


A rant in Salon by Kim Brooks complains, “My college students don’t understand commas, far less how to write an essay,” and asks the perennial question, “Is it time to rethink how we teach?”

While it’s always time to rethink how we teach, teaching commas won’t help.

Teachers like Brooks commonly elevate the lowly comma to a position of singular importance. But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths, just like the myth that says Eskimo has twenty-three words for snow (twenty-eight? forty-five?). More to the point: understanding commas does not guarantee competent writing.

As for comma misuse, well, just look no further than the United States Constitution. Originalists see every word and punctuation mark of that founding document as evidence of the Framers’ intent. Constitutional commas set off syntactic units or separate items in a list, just as we do today (though don’t look for consistency of punctuation in the Constitution: sometimes there’s a comma before the last item in a list, and sometimes there isn’t). But what does the good-writers-understand-commas crowd make of the fact that the Framers and their eighteenth-century peers also used commas to indicate pauses for breath, to cover up drips from the quill pens they used for writing, or like some college students today, for no apparent reason at all?

Take, for example, the comma dividing adjective from noun in this excerpt from Article I, sec. 9:

No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid . . .

Or this one from Art. II, sec. 1, separating direct from indirect object:

The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation . . .

We don’t separate the subject from the verb with a comma, except in the Constitution:

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. [Art. III, sec. 3]

Or the first and third commas of the Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Any student turning in essays with commas like those would be marked wrong.

Plus a contemporary writing teacher would spill a lot of red ink correcting all those unnecessary capital letters in the Constitution, and the jarring it’s for its in Art. I, sec. 9—because no one but “students who can’t write” would use them today:

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws. [emphasis added]

Oh, and don’t forget that the Framers wrote chuse for choose (more red ink: they did this six times), or that little problem with pronoun agreement in Article I, sec. 5, where each House is both an its and a their, “mistakes” that today’s teachers might signal with an ominous “see me!”:

Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy. [emphasis added]

Did the Framers do right by the law, but wrong by standard English? Did they learn the rules before they won their license to break them, much as they broke from their former colonial masters? Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that any writing teacher would grade them down, or maybe even write them up in Salon, for not understanding commas and for violating the laws of language. But if you’re radical enough to argue that the Constitution contains errors, you’ll need not just a lot of red ink but also a joint resolution of Congress followed by approval of three-fourths of the states if you want to correct them.

My point, if you’re waiting for the sound bite, is that mastering commas has little to do with standard English, and mastering standard English—if standard English can even be defined—doesn’t guarantee good writing.

The oft-repeated demand to rethink teaching by teaching more grammar is not the answer (and teaching the comma is not teaching grammar, it’s teaching punctuation). When American schools began requiring grammar in the nineteenth century, teachers, not students, complained that the subject was too hard for them. They were told by school authorities, “Just stay a page ahead of your students, you’ll do fine.” When after a few decades of mandatory grammar lessons it became evident that student writing still wasn’t where it needed to be, the schools dropped grammar as deadening and ineffective. With student writing still an issue, critics want grammar back in the classroom. If nothing else, this cycling in and out of grammar should tell us that writing and grammar aren’t really connected.

There’s a reason to study grammar: it reveals the structure underlying human communication, and human communication is, well, it’s what we do. But studying grammar won’t help us communicate better any more than studying the internal combustion engine will help us to be better drivers.

What can make writers better is more writing. Writing more doesn’t always work: the best writers sometimes fall flat, the worst sometimes fail to improve, and the mediocre may stay stuck in the middle. But writing, both for practice and for real, works better to improve writing than sentence diagrams, comma drills, and mantras like “a noun is the name of a person, place or thing” (should there be a comma after place?). The problem, for the schools, is that writing takes time. It’s a messy process. Improvement isn’t linear. It requires one-on-one feedback from an engaged audience. It’s labor-intensive. It can’t be taught by machine. It’s expensive.

On the other hand, writing is also something that, thanks to the digital revolution, more and more people are doing not just for work and school, but also voluntarily, for their own benefit. Schools tend to dismiss the kind of writing that appears on Facebook, Twitter, IM, texting, and blogs as trivial, even detrimental to the development of good writers. But maybe we should rethink how we teach by looking at what writers do when they tweet and post. And that in turn might shed some light on what writers do when they write essays, poems, grant proposals, quarterly earnings reports, or constitutions. (Hint: they don’t check Strunk and White every time they’re not sure where to put the comma.)

Avoid needless explosions: Excerpt from the journal kept by Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber.
Kaczynski wrote with a copy of Strunk and White by his side. It didn’t help.

Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.

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Recent Comments

  1. BJ Muntain

    “But documents in which a misplaced comma can mean life or death, or at least the difference between a straightforward contract and a legal nightmare of Bleak House proportions, are myths.”

    Tell that to Rogers: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/article838561.ece

  2. Ray Girvan

    Interesting. At least in US teaching, comma placement seems quite an obsession, as questions from students about this regularly appear on Yahoo! Answers. They often indicate they’ve been given extremely stringent rules (for instance, when to put a comma after an “and” in a sentence) that don’t reflect the variations for timing, style and taste that exist in reality.

  3. Dennis Baron

    Interestingly, Rogers has become the main legal citation for defenders of comma rules. However, the placement of the comma in the Rogers contract is not incorrect, and it should be noted that if the Court’s interpretation is based on comma usage rules, then it is based on shifting sands. More pertinent may be the existence of a French version of the contract where the ambiguity may be absent (I have seen references to that French version, but have not found it myself). As I wrote on the Web of Language back in 2006: “the deal between Rogers and Aliant would be just as ambiguous with or without the second comma. To ensure the contract running for a full five years, Rogers would have had to rephrase, not just repunctuate” (http://illinois.edu/db/view/25/1087?count=1&ACTION=DIALOG). Court reliance on grammars and dictionaries as authorities is not new, but it too is subject to critique, as we’ve seen in recent days in reference to a new essay in the Marquette Law Review: http://epublications.marquette.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5051&context=mulr

  4. Chris Rhodes

    Not sure where you are going with the capitalisation – as a proofreader they are a pain in the proverbial! Clients insist that they are for emphasis, but when you use initial caps extensively you lose all emphasis – stick to English rules.
    Regarding comma usage, we should all teach its use as: “Do you get the message? Do you understand what I am trying to communicate?” I am personally appalled as to their lack of use, especially when a poorly constructed sentence clearly needs help.

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