If I leave my apartment without bracelets—even if I’m wearing earrings, necklaces, scarves, and other accessories—I feel as if something is missing all day. I don’t know why, but bracelets are just special (maybe it’s the constant noise they make). For me, jewelry and punctuation have much in common—what my outfit or sentence is saying might be perfectly clear without it, but jewelry or punctuation can help clarify the message.
Last week, I wrote about how the simple period is being increasingly left off of text messages due to the perception that it’s terse or angry (“The Period is Pissed” is the article where I first read about this). I tend to think that of all of the punctuation marks, the period is one of the easiest to grasp; I would say that of end marks in general (question and exclamation marks as well as periods), though they all have their complexities. However, one of the arguably most complex punctuation marks is the comma, and I think that this is largely due to the fact that the reasons for using it vary and are also not universally agreed upon.
I so frequently have people tell me that they’re using too many commas or too few. But those observations aren’t as simple as they sound, and that doesn’t really tell us very much. What I think makes commas difficult for so many writers is that there are so many different ways they can be used: in pairs, in lists, to clarify meaning, to provide rhythm, etc. And there are also times when one style guide will state that they must be used in a particular situation, but another will posit instead that it’s optional. How do we know the difference? Well, for me, I found that what really helped clarify this was not only learning the conventions of comma usage from a variety of perspectives, but also how these conventions have changed over time.
When I first began tutoring writing, I realized that I would have to be able to explain what seemed, until then, choices that I made based on instinct. I had spent years working on a novel (long story for another time) and felt that the comma choices that I made were more or less “correct.” But in order to gain the necessary vocabulary for tutoring, I began to do some research. At that time, I was waiting tables and finishing my undergraduate degree in English as a returning student. I had brought the well known The Elements of Style (originally written by William Strunk, Jr., published in 1920, and later expanded upon by E. B. White) with me to the restaurant and was reading it on my train ride home. Several late night (i.e., somewhat intoxicated) train riders stopped their conversations to marvel at my choice of reading material at one in the morning!
But what I hadn’t considered was the fact that usage changes and that a style guide that was nearing its centennial should be taken in context and not as the final word on how to talk about grammar. But does a person have to read all of the style guides to gain a more holistic picture? Not necessarily (though it sounds like fun to me). I eventually realized that no one single style guide comprised “the rules” and that there was so much more to grammar than that. Thinking about why you’re writing something and the expectations of who will be reading it will also tell you more about choices—because we don’t have to make the same choices in every single writing task.
Unlike the period, commas don’t seem to be changing usage in text messages—they seem to be disappearing. An article in Slate by Matthew J. X. Malady points this out and also asks the very good question, “Will We Use Commas in the Future?” This article says more about Strunk and White and also more about the lack of definitive comma guidelines, putting it neatly that “[e]ven the most seemingly straightforward comma guidelines are burdened by exceptions and inconsistencies and caveats.” Whether or not commas will survive into the future remains to be seen, but my guess is that they will survive and we will still use them. But how we do it might undergo some exciting changes, and personally, I can’t wait to see what happens.
But back to bracelets! Just like commas, my bracelet usage varies. Some bracelets I wear almost every day: a green Bakelite one that belonged to my grandmother, two silver bangles that I had in high school, seven multicolored Danish plastic ones that I recently bought at a neighborhood antique shop. Others I reserve for less frequent wear: my snake bracelet is one that comes to mind. But maybe I’ll try to vary my routine a bit and leave my favorites at home. Who knows? Experimenting might lead to some great new bracelet combinations and ways to punctuate my outfits in even more nuanced ways. So how many bracelets are too many? For me, I’m not really sure. I only know that I’ve not yet reached that number, whatever it might be.