Stupid concept: ‘How you write a sentence depends on your lung capacity.’

Perhaps the biggest lie anyone has ever told you about commas is that they represent breaths.

“Add a comma anywhere you pause to breathe,” is bad advice I see a lot from online “writing experts” and others. I saw it again yesterday, which is what triggered this post.

Commas don’t indicate a pause to breathe. Commas can’t just indicate a pause to breathe, because that would mean that a person with greater lung capacity would use far fewer commas, if any, whereas a person with small lungs or a condition such as asthma would appear to be using the Shatner comma.

If you insist on linking commas to anything the reader does physically, link them to voice inflection (real or imagined).

 

 

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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9 Responses to Stupid concept: ‘How you write a sentence depends on your lung capacity.’

  1. J.R. Handley says:

    Does the rule of thumb have ANY use?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. curioushart says:

    First time I heard of a Shatner comma; unusual but appropriate.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. nicholeqw1023 says:

    So the guess and hope method isn’t a good approach either?

    Like

    • That depends on whether the guessing is based on at least some understanding of how punctuation works and why it’s used. The good news is, most rules for comma usage are fairly consistent, and the rest are of the “more like guidelines” variety.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. At school we took “dictation tests” – the teacher dictated a text to test our knowledge of spelling and grammar. To help us, the teacher would say: “I’ll pause when you should set a comma,” which resulted in some people putting a comma whenever the teacher breathed in.
    I also remember that my friend and I cheated at at least one of these tests, me tapping her on the knee for every comma.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. M. Oniker says:

    I had never heard of this suggestion, but I have heard of a similar one that I’m going to dare to say is useful (at times). To use a comma to indicate inhaling is, as you discuss, is weird. I have heard that a comma is used to indicate where you would pause in a sentence if you were speaking the sentence, not for breath purposes but for emphasis or style. That isn’t saying that is the only way to place commas, but I think it works for certain styles of writing. I wouldn’t do technical writing that way.

    That being said, I think you should give us an example of the Shatner comma in use! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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