Jane Austen’s love affair with the comma

Jane Austen
Did Jane Austen love commas?

This is not a criticism of Jane Austen as a writer; I’m a fan. But it’s a good thing “Persuasion” wasn’t my first Austen book.

“Persuasion” is complicated by commas (and too many characters named Charles).

I realize Austen wrote “Persuasion” in the early 1800s, and so comma use today would naturally vary from comma use then.

I bring this up in late 2009 because some copywriters at organizations seem to want to emulate Austen by overusing commas as she (or her printers) did.

Merriam-Webster defines a comma as a pause, an interval. It helps readers grasp an idea before moving on to another. In the following example, the comma allows the reader to understand that although Michael is a Native American, his family did not stress the heritage:

“Michael is a Cherokee, but it was never part of his family’s identity.”

When a writer overuses commas, as Austen does in “Persuasion,” the reader can get lost. Try these examples:

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going, than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again, and as soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

Better: Eliminate the first comma; consider replacing the second comma with a semicolon or a period.

“Though Charles and Mary had remained at Lyme much longer after Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove’s going than Anne conceived they could have been at all wanted, they were yet the first of the family to be at home again. As soon as possible after their return to Uppercross, they drove over to the lodge.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable stout, forward child, of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, and went straight to the sofa to see what was going on, and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Better: Eliminate the comma before “of two years old,” the “and” after “among them” and (if you hate serial commas like I do) the comma after “going on.”

“The younger boy, a remarkable, stout, forward child of two years old, having got the door opened for him by some one without, made his determined appearance among them, went straight to the sofa to see what was going on and put in his claim to any thing good that might be giving away.”

Comma use isn’t an exact science. Just keep in mind that you want your message to be easily understood and remembered, so don’t throw small curvy roadblocks in your reader’s way unnecessarily.

Get familiar with “Persuasion”

Discussion of the commas in “Mansfield Park”

Dare we criticize commas in the opening sentence of “Pride and Prejudice”?

Commas save lives!