In business writing missing commas stop readers understanding which is bad

Erin Brenner looks at comments from John McWhorter and Anne Curzan about the dispensability of commas. She says that the apparent trend away from comma use is mainly in casual writing, where you might well want to be breezy and chatty and not too pedantic – and especially in texts and tweets, where space is tight.

But I find that a lot of the most formal, lengthy business writing that comes across my desk is also painfully short on commas.

Take these two sentences from a report I recently edited (I’ve changed some of the nouns and adjectives so that the topic and source can’t be identified, but the structure and punctuation are as I found them):

  • A notable exception is Smith’s Gadgets which despite a high price has managed to get significant international sales most likely because of the high product quality and the brand of the supplier.
  • In this scenario the major share of consumer gadget spending will go to the large traditionally business suppliers helping maintain an oligopolistic situation in the electronic gadget market hindering price competition.

This is bad writing. The lack of commas isn’t the only fault but it’s a big one. While neither of these sentences is truly ambiguous, a few well-placed commas would help the reader to parse them with less mental effort.

Compare:

  • A notable exception is Smith’s Gadgets, which, despite a high price, has managed to get significant international sales, most likely because of the high product quality and the brand of the supplier.
  • In this scenario, the major share of consumer gadget spending will go to the large, traditionally business suppliers, helping maintain an oligopolistic situation in the electronic gadget market, hindering price competition.

Still poor, but not nearly such tough going.

Why do some corporate writers so strenuously avoid commas? The explanations that might apply to casual writing – it feels more conversational, it saves characters, the quality doesn’t really matter – don’t apply here. My pet theory is that some people think commas slow prose down, giving it a ponderous, even leisurely feel. They think commas mean pauses and they don’t want pauses. They’re high-powered executive business writers dammit they don’t have to stop and think and what they have to say is urgent!

But pauses are not – not mainly – what commas are for. They are mainly to help the reader navigate the clause structure of the sentence without having to think about it. Used well, they make the sentence more likely to be read as intended without leading the reader up the garden path.

Likewise, hyphens can help to show the reader what’s a compound modifier and what’s a noun phrase.

In speech, we can vary things like speed and stress and pitch to help our words go down the right way. In writing, we have punctuation. So use it. It makes sense.

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Comments

  • Marilyn Hudson Tucker  On February 26, 2014 at 1:04 pm

    Excellent article. I put your link on the San Antonio Writers’ Guild website for Facebook and on my FB page “Ask a Grammar Guru.”

  • Sarah  On February 27, 2014 at 3:58 pm

    Agreed. I find myself adding commas a lot. (And now I need to find a reason to use ‘oligopolistic’ in casual conversation.)

  • datmama4  On February 27, 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Is it a good or bad sign that I’m shouting, “YES! YES! YES!” at the top of my lungs here?

    “They’re high-powered executive business writers dammit they don’t have to stop and think and what they have to say is urgent!” <— And I read that in my best Dr. McCoy voice. Thank you for today's smile.

  • Barrie  On February 28, 2014 at 8:38 pm

    ‘Casual’ rather than ‘causal’ in the first paragraph? But agree completely. The purpose of punctuation is primarily to help readers understand the grammatical structure of the sentence.

  • walt walker  On March 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

    Love your thoughts language and writing. I hope that the increased traffic you get from being Freshly Pressed has an impact!

  • City Girl at the Edge  On March 10, 2014 at 2:43 am

    Fresh Pressed brought me; your writing will bring me back. Yay for commas!

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