The Prolific Comma

Over the course of the past couple of years, I’ve read quite a few application essays. Most are very thoughtful. Some are inspiring. All are written by smart people. Yet many, if not most, suffer from a single pathology: their authors sprinkle commas through their sentences with a pathologically unbridled enthusiasm.

To be honest, I think the problem is that our students read too much of our bad writing. Before long, they start to emulate the epic, serpentine sentences that span line after line of our turgid journal articles. They never learned the rules for punctuating such sentences because, beyond a certain point, those sentences shouldn’t be punctuated—they should be taken out behind a barn and shot. We can’t blame them for scattering commas like talismans to ward off incomprehensibility.

That’s not to say that we can’t do something about it. As an antidote, I highly recommend Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. For those unwilling to read even that slim volume, there’s a useful cheat sheet over at WikiHow. And for graduate students and professors alike, Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, while not yet out, sounds awfully promising.

Good luck to all of you. And on behalf of all of us, we’re sorry.