If you write for a living or write for the love of words, you’ve asked this question either to someone or to yourself: is there such a thing as using too many commas?
Perhaps you were reading a work by Gertrude Stein (most likely for a college course) where the comma rarely makes a cameo. Or maybe you were editing your peer’s latest story where the comma can’t stop its chatter across the page. Or perhaps you received a text where your friend can’t bother to find the period but s/he has the comma on speed dial (so to speak).
Just because the comma is applied excessively doesn’t make the sentence grammatically incorrect, right?
I beg to disagree.
Let me tell you a story. I recently asked for some colleagues (several I only know by name and have never met in person) to review some content our team produced to verify that it was factually correct and followed brand procedures.
This kind of request always opens the possibility of the reviewer to get out a figurative red pen.
And one reviewer couldn’t resist the urge. This person asked over email for me to add a few more commas, which is a lot in a short sentence that doesn’t need them at all.
This person’s request was similar to the comma usage below:
One, white-feathered, swan, wants to swim, across the lake.
Like most grammarians, I first groaned out loud. Then I seriously contemplated if I should correct this person’s grammar with a thorough explanation—but we all know this isn’t a card we can play in the game of office politics. So I settled for the action step of thanking this reviewer for their suggestions and explained how I applied the other suggestions to the content as if the clash of the commas incident never happened.
I wasn’t sure if I handled the situation correctly, so I reviewed the feedback with my team and we were in solidarity in not using the excess of commas for that particular sentence.
So, Can You Use Too Many Commas?
In short, yes. If you’re asking this question, chances are it’s because the comma sticks out unnecessarily from the rest of the sentence.
The purpose of a comma is to support the sentence both visually and spoken aloud so well that it appears invisible. But if that extra comma glares at you like a zit on your face in the mirror, then it needs to go.
If you use a comma for any other reason that doesn’t follow these grammatically correct ways of using a comma, then the comma is used ineffectively.
You could say this is a subjective opinion of mine. But many readers like myself share this subjective opinion. If we don’t like reading too many commas, we’ll stop reading your work altogether.
What writer wants to give any reader a reason to stop reading?
You could also say that there are long sentences that use twelve instances of a comma correctly. But do you really enjoy reading these long sentences that made it into literature? Or do you want to write to their editor imploring why they let a never-ending thought of a sentence (what I endearingly call a brick) into print?
TL;DR: When It’s Too Many Commas
- The comma doesn’t follow grammatical correctness
- The comma is applied to keep a long sentence going even longer
The Only Instance I’m Cool With Using Too Many Commas
I don’t like making exceptions, especially when it comes to grammar and punctuation, but there comes a time in one’s life where a multitude of commas can be a lifesaver.
The only occasion I think it’s acceptable to use too many commas is when you’re writing something that is only meant to be read aloud, not read in print.
Say you are writing a speech that wasn’t going to be printed out in newspapers or across the media (this probably applies for most of us). If inserting an extra comma helps you remember when to pause or speak at a slower rate, then put that comma in.
It can be argued that it’s correct to use a comma to denote a pause in written work. But I’d argue that this comma usage just proves that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to read the sentence correctly. Trust that your reader and take out anything redundant from your writing, even an extra comma, so that your reader can enjoy what you wrote.