Dude, where’s my comma?

(Update: Includes Gopal Gandhi’s reply.)

Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s lead in The Hindu, ‘An open letter to Narendra Modi‘, was a wonderful read – as if from the Keeper of the Nation’s Conscience to the Executor of the Republic’s Will. I’m not interested in scrupulous political analyses and Gandhi’s piece sat well with that, explaining so lucidly what’s really at stake as Modi gears up to become India’s 14th Prime Minister without fixating on big words, not that that’s wrong but they tend to throw me off.

However, Gandhi’s piece does have an awful number of commas in it and IMO they hamper the flow. Sample this.

Why is there, in so many, so much fear, that they dare not voice their fears?

The piece as such is 1,469 words long, has 82 sentences, about 17.91 words per sentence and 140 commas. That means a lot of sentences have at least one comma. In fact, there are only 11 sentences in which a comma has appeared exactly once; in every other sentence with a comma, there are at least two of them (excluding the opening and closing addresses).

Overall, there are 13 sentences with no commas. Remove them and the average number of commas per sentence comes to 2.02. Factor in the number of sentences with only one comma and that gives you 2.22 – the number of commas on average in each sentence with at least two commas.

This means almost 71% of sentences in the piece possess a sub-clause. I think that makes for clunky reading. Many people, especially those writing in Indian newspapers, have a tendency to use the comma to effect a pause while reading, mostly for dramatic effect, but the comma serves a bigger purpose than that. It breaks the sentence down into meaningful nuclear bits. For example, see the italicized bit in the sentence two lines above or below. That’s a sub-clause demarcated by commas. Remove it and the rest of the sentence, with the two ends brought together, still make sense.

Ideally, the number of commas should be comparable to the number of sentences, and definitely shouldn’t differ by an order of magnitude unless, of course, you’re composing something especially tricky, like this sentence. If you find you can’t avoid using too many sub-clauses, it could mean you’re not spelling things out simple enough.

If your sub-clauses are dominated by words like ‘however’ or ‘albeit’, it could mean you’re making many assumptions while constructing your arguments. If there are too many non-essential relative clauses, it could mean you’re trying to pack in too much information (usually in the form of adjectives).

In short, this Feynman episode sums it up:

Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But a few days later he told the faculty member, “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.”

Of course, these are just my thoughts, and most of them are the sort of things I’ve to look out for while editing The Hindu Blogs. I’d try to use commas only when absolutely necessary because they, especially when frequent enough, don’t just give pause but enforce them.

Update: Gopalkrishna Gandhi replied to my piece. Very sweet of him to do so…

Absolutely delighted and want to tell him that I find his comment as refreshing as a shower in lavender for it cures me almost if not fully of my old old habit of taking myself too seriously and writing as if I am meant to change the world and also that I will be very watchful about not enforcing any pauses through commas and under no circumstances on pain of ostracism for that worst of all effects namely dramatic effect and will assiduosuly [sic] follow the near zero comma if not a zero comma rule and that I would greatly value a meet up and a chat discussing pernicious punctuation and other evils.

… but what a troll!

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