Commas save lives

Like most students of my generation, I “did” English homework work: I memorized vocabulary words from publisher-produced lists, responded to publisher-produced “questions for understanding” literature, and completed publisher-created exercises in correct placement of commas.  By the time I graduated high school, valedictorian of my class, I had come to believe commas were just decorations, about as vital to writing as cosmetics to chickens.

I persisted in this belief until my senior year of college when a chemistry professor did what no English teacher was able to do: He helped me learn why comma placement matters.

Commas save lives is more than just a T-shirt slogan.

My roommate had published poetry while in high school, but her ambition was to be an inorganic chemist. From the first day we met, Cheryl talked about wanting to isolate the amino acid lysine from human hair. For nearly three years, every time I got my hair cut, I’d ask for the clippings, which I gave to Cheryl to use for isolating lysine.

A psychology major, English minor, I worked as a “reader” for a visually handicapped sociology major with whom I shared several courses. When we were required to take a statistics course, I knew Sue wouldn’t be able to understand the text without seeing the graphs.  I decided to take Sue to a chemistry lab where I could draw the graphs on the blackboards that covered three walls, since I knew from Cheryl that the  labs were deserted in the late afternoons,

I discovered that I couldn’t just read the statistics book to Sue, even with the diagrams on the board. She had never seen a graph and didn’t know how to interpret one. I ended up having to learn the week’s statistics material and teach it to her.  As I was doing that, the chemistry prof, Dr. Dale Ritter, would often walk through on his way to the instrumentation room as I was explaining statistics to Sue.

One day Dr. Ritter told me Cheryl had to write for her analytical chemistry class in a format suitable for chemistry journal, but what she wrote was in a literary style. He said he didn’t know how to explain what she needed to do differently and asked if I could help. Cheryl was already a very fine writer. It took only a few minutes to point out the features of journal style that she needed to follow.

When Cheryl hadn’t done the lysine isolation by my final semester of college, I teased her about it by telling some students in the chem lab about the acute embarrassment I’d suffered for three years when asking for my hair clippings. Dr. Ritter overhead me and asked if I’d like to do the lysine isolation myself. He said the lab had everything that was necessary, and he’d be happy to help me set it up.

I’d never taken a chemistry course, but it sounded like it might be fun. I said I’d love to do it.

Dr. Ritter got out the equipment.

Cheryl got out the directions.

I got bewildered.

Many of the sentences of the directions contained words that could be used as different parts of speech depending on the context, but none of the sentences had any internal punctuation marks. That often meant it was impossible to be sure what part of speech a particular word had in a particular sentence. For example, if you chose to regard a word as a noun, which you would have done if it had a comma after it, you would do something quite different than you would do if you treated that word as an adjective modifying the following word.

I’d read the directions and figure out what I thought I ought to do.

Then Cheryl would come along and read the directions, pausing in different places, and she’d conclude I needed to do something quite different.

Sometimes someone else would wander by, read the directions, and, by pausing in other different places, reach an entirely different third conclusion.

I learned from the experience the chemistry fact that putting hair in hydrochloric acid produces the smell of vomit.  

I also learned from the experience the importance of commas. When you’re doing things with hydochloric acid, you realize quite forcefully that commas are not just decorations.

Commas are essential to clear communication.

Learn a lesson from my experience. When you teach comma use, be smart about it. Instead of funny examples, use examples from law and business that show how much damage a comma can cause.

A misplaced comma really could kill somebody.


Resources for comma use

Punctuation Matters: ‘Dear John’ Letter and a 2-Million-Dollar Comma. The second example shows the importance of careful comma use in business.        

Why Commas Matter: The Wire Act Story. Incorrect comma use changes how a law is interpreted.

The ruling in this Maine labor dispute hinged on the omission of an Oxford comma. A news story from The Washington Post about a business law case.

Get control of your commas.   Examples from Perspect Med Educ, a medical education journal, about the importance of comma placement when writing about medicine.

17 rules for using commas without looking like a fool  This guide from Business Insider shows each rule on a separate slide. Slides are supplemented by an explanation of the rule.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni