Weak and Strong Commas

by Mark L. Levinson

Recently I found a 1959 story by a pulp writer named Tom Nosnivel.  I was intrigued because my own family’s name used to be Nosnivel before we reversed it.  The story starts like this:  “It was a little quiet around the barracks and the air was tight with tension and the dry, stifling, summer heat of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Cousin Tom, whoever he was, has a sense of timing.  Although a short-story writer urgently needs to excite interest as the story begins, Tom dares to open with an understatement.  It was not ominously quiet around the barracks, or dead quiet or maddeningly quiet.  It was just a little quiet.  By establishing that he does not exaggerate, Tom picks up credibility which he immediately uses — before the moment is lost — to sell you the tension and the heat.  If he had started right in with “The air was tight with tension,” you wouldn’t have bought it.

A good editor might tell you that the comma before “summer” is wrong.  Summer is not a true adjective, it’s an attributive noun.  The point is that the summer heat was dry and stifling, not that the heat was dry, stifling, and summer.  Saying “the dry, stifling, summer heat” is like saying “the golden, steaming, chicken soup.” 

If I were Tom’s pleader at the Supreme Editorial Court, I might argue that “stifling” is enclosed in commas because after “dry” it is intended less as a new, additional description than as a rethinking of the same idea, as if Tom were writing “the dry — you know what?  I don’t mean just dry, I mean stifling! — summer heat.” 

Failing that, I might plead poetic license.  I might say, chancing the judge’s exasperated scorn, that Tom treats “summer” as a regular adjective because he wants to imply that, rather than being merely the time that the heat occurs, it is a quality making the heat inherently different from other heat. 

I would never submit that supplying a pause for emphasis after “stifling” was a legitimate purpose for the comma.  I could lose my own license.

But though the comma before “summer” is an interesting one, what’s more relevant to everyday technical writing is the missing comma between the clauses.  Normally we would write “It was a little quiet around the barracks, and the air was tight with tension.”  Tom omits that comma.  Maybe he would have kept it if it weren’t for the greater importance of the commas at the end of the sentence:  “... tension and the dry, stifling, summer heat of the Rio Grande Valley.”

Sometimes if you use a comma in every permissible place, the reader’s eye loses track of the sentence’s overall structure among the visual stops and starts.  You might write, for example, “TiePlumb checks your authorization, and it reports unauthorized access attempts.”  And you might write “Upon sign-in, TiePlumb checks your authorization.”  But if you write “Upon sign-in, TiePlumb checks your authorization, and it reports unauthorized access attempts,” then the impression could be that the report is necessarily issued upon sign-in.  Maybe the report is issued somewhat later.  If you keep the comma that you wanted the reader to be consider the stronger one and you waive the weaker one, you tighten the association between the sign-in and authorization while leaving the report separated from them.  In this case, you might also want to promote the remaining comma to a semicolon:  “Upon sign-in TiePlumb checks your authorization; and it reports unauthorized access attempts.”

If you have commas serving more than one purpose in the same sentence, it’s a good idea to consider whether all the commas are necessary.

Comments and questions are welcome: ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.