For Johnny Grimond, writer of The Economist’s style guide, the comma is unmatched in its versatility: “Commas are for artists. They can be applied with a fine nib or a thick brush, as a slash or a curl, with brio, delicacy or deliberation. They can be a waxing moon, a falling number nine, a clenched fist or a regal wave, a brandished hockey stick or a drunken tadpole. They are sometimes obligatory, sometimes discretionary. They may be single, like this one. Or they may come in pairs, on either side of a parenthetical phrase (Rutland, famous for its tradition of rush-strewing, is home to some notable Morris dancers) or a relative clause (Rutland, which is the smallest county in England, may also be the dullest).
More Intelligent Life has started a new series to find out what the best punctuation mark is.
Commas are also for musicians. They govern the flow of a sentence, offering advice about breathing, pausing and, by their unexpected absence, pressing on. They give rhythm. They substitute for missing conjunctions (I love Rutland, its pleasing plainness). They give emphasis (The men of Rutland are often, and always proudly, known as Raddle men). Commas do the work of an implied verb (Though undistinguished, Rutland has its admirers) or give the impression of disjointed speech or activity (We dashed through it, I wasn’t sorry).”
See also: Rosie Blau on punctuation—a very short history, Claire Messud thinks the semi-colon is the best and Norah Perkins loves the dash. Soon to be published: Ali Smith marvels at the ampersand, Julian Barnes makes a plea for the exclamation mark and Kassia St Clair favours the ellipsis.