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Q. I work with many first-time authors, and many of them want to argue about commas. Of course as author, they have the final decision of their own work . . . but I keep running into the idea of breath: “My high school English teacher taught me that commas go where you want to take a breath, so that’s why this comma should be here.” What would you say to these authors?
A. The rules on comma usage in CMOS (chapter 6) favor writing over speaking. The goal is to provide readers with the minimum number of signposts required to navigate sentence structure. Sentence structure is logical. Pauses or breaths, on the other hand, tend to be personal. Though commas will often correspond to pauses, no two people will read the same sentence in precisely the same way.
For most types of expository writing, we’d advise following a consistent set of rules that assign commas based on sentence structure rather than pauses or breaths (or what some would refer to as rhythm). This approach will support the goal of producing clear, unambiguous prose.
But in fiction and poetry and other forms of creative writing, there’s more room for stylistic variation. Some writers apply commas with a light touch; others punctuate more closely. Henry James was a stylist of the latter type:
It led, in short, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder, yet not quite a remembrance, as they sat, much separated, at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly. (“The Beast in the Jungle,” in The Better Sort [Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903], 190)
This sentence might be edited to conform to Chicago style as follows:
It led in short, in the course of the October afternoon, to his closer meeting with May Bartram, whose face, a reminder yet not quite a remembrance as they sat much separated at a very long table, had begun merely by troubling him rather pleasantly.
James famously dictated his writing by that point in his career; one can imagine him pausing over each successive layer of meaning as he spoke the words aloud. But when the goal is primarily to make sure readers understand the text rather than to provide a record of the creative process, all those extra commas can get in the way.
So unless you’re dealing with an accomplished prose stylist, you might say to your recalcitrant authors that whereas at least some of their readers will be annoyed by superfluous or random commas, few if any will miss them when they’re gone. For another take on this subject, see “Sure, You Got A’s in English—But Do You Know Where Commas Go?” at CMOS Shop Talk.