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A Comma Explosion From “Under The Volcano”

I love commas. I really do.

Commas are one of my favorite punctuation marks. Commas allow you to breathe. They help you establish a certain cadence and rhythm as a writer. Unless you are William Faulkner, you’ve probably used a comma or two in your writing.

But can you have too much of a good thing? Can your writing have too many commas?

Oh yes. Yes it can.

Reading a book with an overabundance of commas might be a lot like going on a diet of french fries and dark chocolate. You don’t have to be Morgan Spurlock to know that after a few days, you’re going to be praying at the porcelain altar surrounded by Wendy’s and Hershey’s wrappers.

Malcolm Lowry, author of my current read, Under The Volcano, loved the comma. I mean, he really loved the comma.

I present to you one passage from page 13 of Under The Volcano:

And yet, after all, the storm contained its own secret calm…His passion for Yvonne (whether or not she’d ever been much good as an actress was beside the point, he’d told her the truth when he said she would have been more than good in any film he made) had brought back to his heart, in a way he could not have explained, the first time that alone, walking over the meadows from Saint Pres, the sleepy French village of backwaters and locks and grey disused watermills where he was lodging, he had seen, rising slowly and wonderfully and with boundless beauty above the stubble fields blowing with wildflowers, slowly rising into the sunlight, as centuries before the pilgrims straying over those same fields had watched them rise, the twin spires of Chartres Cathedral.

There’s nothing grammatically wrong with his overuse of commas. It’s just his style. Some readers will hardly notice it. But my guess is that the ADD-type readers, like myself, will go crazy.

Lowry’s writing has so many commas, combined with so many changes of direction within each long sentence, that it proves to be difficult to follow.

At least that’s been my experience.

How much comma is too much comma?

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16 Comments Post a comment
  1. And of course there was John Milton who wrote such heroic sentences, using many many commas.

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  2. This is like complaining that Julius Caesar overused Roman numerals. First, the usage rules for commas have changed since the time Malcolm Lowry wrote this novel; second, each of the commas in the selection you quoted correctly sets apart a parenthetical element as required by the rules of punctuation; and third, Lowry writes complex sentences meant for careful reading in a time before television and Pókemon.

    Try reading Céline … who eschews commas … complete sentences … and fills the pages with … ellipses. Or António Lobo Antunes : who writes a lot of fiction without using either the comma or the full-stop : his works are replete with colons. There are also authors who use no punctuation, capitalize randomly, have no chapters or even paragraphs to break up the work, or even segment, reorder, and shuffle the narrative requiring the reader to mentally recreate the discourse. Malcolm Lowry is easy: he follows the then accepted rules of English (not necessarily American) punctuation and he writes clear, understandable prose.

    What is your opinion of Henry James?

    Like

    May 1, 2012
    • As I said, there’s nothing wrong with his writing grammatically. Yes, it’s obvious these commas set apart parenthetical statements. But how many parentheticals does one need? Why not throw a period in there every now and then. I’m not complaining. It’s just not my preferred style of writing to read, much like you don’t like Hemingway, correct?

      Like

      May 1, 2012
      • Actually, my dislike of Hemingway has nothing to do with his style of writing (which was not really Hemingway’s but rather Ezra Pound’s blue pencil).

        Like

        May 1, 2012
  3. I kind of like commas. Read a book written before 1900, and you usually find a surfeit of them. I agree that an author can use too many. When I approach a book with lots of commas, I slow down a bit while reading, and find that there’s usually a rhythm that one misses if one reads too quickly. You’re right about ADD-type readers going crazy with too many commas. But do we read to get through a book as quickly as possible? That seems to be the prevailing ethic in our society. Or do we read because we love the feeling of the words and thoughts being transmitted from the author to us? Do we simply enjoy the pleasure of reading? But it’s really hard to slow down in our culture–enough to appreciate the rhythms of someone like Donne, or Melville, or Arnold.

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  4. It’s like a joke on the reader – hey have fun sorting this out. I’m going to make the sentence as long and full of information as possible without running on.

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  5. I would be remiss to add to the replies that I learned this year from a class called “The Structure of the English Language” by doing a semester long Grammar test on the Internet, as well as the class material, that the overuse of commas can make or break a good paper (poem, novella, novel, etc).My advisor taught the class and oversaw my creative work. In academic writing, without a single doubt, rules exist to temper the comma crazed misuse of a very beautiful punctuation option. In creative writing the writer, seriously, needs a guide to comma use to follow. Too many commas today piss editor’s off. Dr. C my advisor, said that he (at 37 years old) managed to write academic books and fiction works that were published, because he knows where the hell a comma belongs. It’s so funny this topic at last surfaced somewhere. I read not even half of that excerpt–I went batpoop crazy. I always find a way to shorten the length of my sentances when I face a comma kamkazie situation. Thank you for a nice reminder. I almost done writing my thesis. I shall beware.

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  6. Yikes! He may be using the commas correctly but that’s not my preferred style. Nice post 🙂

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  7. The passage made me feel like the events should be fast paced and confusing >_<

    Like

    May 1, 2012
  8. I think some writers just like long sentences. Half-pagers even. Which is fine – some of the time. But it seems to me in the example you gave, he could have thrown in the odd semi-colon or even(heaven forbid) a dash, just to break the thing up. As it is, it reads like a breathy ordeal. I hadn’t remembered that about this book. Good post.

    Like

    May 2, 2012
    • Part of it is based on who the narration is about at the time. The Consul’s sections tend to be that way, because he’s often drunk, which lends to the long, rambling style. Some of the later sections are a little more straightforward. It’s an interesting approach.

      Like

      May 2, 2012
  9. As long as you don’t start counting the commas, you should be fine. The work should be interesting enough you don’t notice the comma. If it’s well written, they’ll seem necessary like the pause they’re supposed to be.

    Like

    May 2, 2012
  10. This style of complex sentences seems to play with the reader – stringing the reader along and not giving up the point. The commas were used very well, but he wouldn’t let us go. Sometimes complex sentences enhance the reading experience but sometimes the writer is just being controlling!

    Like

    May 3, 2012
    • This reminds me of my English prsseofor, who used to be very critical of the misuse of double quotes.There are only two uses of quotes one to quote someone, and the other to enclose a ironic or sarcastic expressions. A lot of people, however, use quotes to add emphasis. Quotes don’t add emphasis. For e.g. use of double quotes in the following statement doesn’t add emphasis, instead it simply confuses the reader who goes seeking the irony/sarcasm in the statement. This reminds me of my prsseofor from Cambridge, who used to be very critical of the “misuse” of double quotes. If you want to emphasis something, italicize it.Saqib

      Like

      May 26, 2012
  11. I have to agree with you… too many commas gives me anxiety. Yeesh!

    Like

    May 8, 2012

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