No, that isn’t a misspelling. It’s a joke, because it turns out that commas can be funny. I discovered this while teaching my advanced ESOL writing students. Most of the class time is spent reviewing student essays, addressing organization, clarity, grammar, and word choice. The essays range from funny to poignant to informative, and are often thought-provoking. And in my current class they are also littered with commas.

The thing about commas is that they are easy to overuse. I have been guilty of using too many commas (in fact, I just removed two commas from this essay). As I write, if I take a pause in the sentence in my mind, I place a comma. Sometimes they are necessary but other times they are not. There are cases where they can help distinguish between a loving person and a cannibal:

I enjoy cooking, my family, and my dog.


I enjoy cooking my family and my dog.

Often the decision isn’t as clear.

The other day my class decided to share commas. Take them from the overusers and give them to the under- users. Borrow them from one sentence and donate them to another. We thought of having a big pile in the middle of the table to share, or to charge for them so we stopped using them carelessly. Just because they are small and easy to insert does not diminish their value or the care with which they should be used.

At one point we seriously considered manufacturing them and turning it into a business, buying and selling them like a commodity. It took a few seconds to realize the absurdity of the notion. Although now that I think of it, if you manufactured a whole set of punctuation along with a set of letters from cardboard or wood, maybe it could be a learning tool? Hmm…

Not to kill the fun with over-analysis, but the good thing about finding humor in a problem is that it brings attention to it and allows you see it in new ways. I never thought deeply about how I use commas. As a fiction writer i tend to be a bit liberal with grammar rules under the guise of “literary license”. I don’t recall ever being taught the rules of grammar in school. My knowledge, such as it is, evolved naturally from years of reading and writing in English. I look up grammar rules on Google to keep one step ahead of my students much the same way I read Physics for Layman books to keep up with my son’s thirst for knowledge about Black Holes when he was younger.

Next week I will bring my class some handouts outlining the technical rules for using commas. I will offer a more academic approach, to give a framework for making the vitally important and continually necessary decisions about when and when not to use commas. But the touchstone for the lesson was the humor, the ability to laugh at our proclivity to insert commas every time we took a pause in our thinking and wanted to give our readers the same, brief, respite from thought. The cognitive dissonance that produced laughter also produced insight. For a teacher, that never gets old.

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