I need a new punctutation mark. It doesn't seem to exist, so I'll have to invent it. I'll call it the light comma.
A fair proportion of my writing time is spent inserting and deleting commas. Well, it's truer to say a fair proportion of my reading time is spent this way, mentally rehearsing the sense and effect of with comma and without comma before the deed, then testing it after the deed - the actual insertion and deletion takes no more time than it does to make a keystroke or two (or ten or twelve before I'm satisifed I have it right, which lasts until the next day when I come to read the draft again and doubt my judgement of the day before). Come to think of it it's not just the comma; I've just spent a good ten or fifteen minutes fiddling with the other stops, starts, hesitations, interjections and interpolations signified by the brackets, dashes and semi-colons of this very paragraph, not to mention making a judgment on 'judgment' or 'judgement' (you can have either spelling). It's the comma, though, that gives me most pause for thought.
On the whole, modern writers make less use of the comma than those who came before. I guess that's partly a reponse to our more hurried times, partly a more relaxed (some would say less disciplined) approach to the rules of punctuation, especially since texting has become an everyday means of communication. What we risk, in dropping the comma, is ambiguity, lack of clarity and, for creative writers especially, a certain loss of rhythmic control over the way our work is read.
I try not to put too firm a foot in either the old camp or the new camp, but prefer to experiment; to read and test, and read and test again. The eye, the ear, the brain, the heart all have to be involved - if that doesn't sound too precious for the deceptively simple act of punctuation.
Not simple at all, that's my point. It's the subtlety of it that has me yearning for a new type of comma, because I'm increasingly finding that there is not enough range in the options available. An artist can mix his paint on the palette, apply it more or less heavily to the canvas. A musician can play a note loudly, softly, somewhere in between. We have but a few choices available to us of punctuation marks in general, and as far as the comma in particular is concerned the choice is... to use or not to use. Sometimes that is not enough nuance.
OK, I'll try to illustrate what I mean by an example. I am currently revising some chapters of a novel and this week I wrote the following:
We placed the board next to the injured man, and the doctor supervised his transfer onto it; three of us either side, our male fingers unnaturally interlocked under shoulders, back and buttocks as we lifted him, gently as we could. I could feel the scrape of loose spoil on knuckles, wetness running into my palms.
Reading it over several times, I found myself more and more disturbed by the comma after shoulders. It seemed to me too heavy in the sentence, disturbing the rhythm and gving too much emphasis to shoulders in comparison to back and buttocks. I felt it important that the three parts of the man's body needed equal emphasis - not quite sure why, but maybe it has to do with conveying the idea of the patient being lifted across in one smooth movement. So I tried bucking the convention of placing commas in a list and edited the paragraph to read:
We placed the board next to the injured man, and the doctor supervised his transfer onto it; three of us either side, our male fingers unnaturally interlocked under shoulders back and buttocks as we lifted him, gently as we could. I could feel the scrape of loose spoil on knuckles, wetness running into my palms.
But now the absence of a comma after shoulders seemed to draw attention to itself, and seemed somehow to bring back too close to it. Damn it.
That's when it struck me that what I need is a new type of punctuation mark, a comma providing a pause that is more than nothing, but slightly less than an ordinary comma: a light comma.
The light comma would look the same as an ordinary comma except that it would have the effect of being printed on an old typewriter ribbon. If handwritten, the writer could ease up just a little on the pen pressing down on the page, just like the artist with her brush, or the pianist touching the key - pianissimo.
Surely computer keyboard makers would be able to design something that could work in this way? All I need is a few million writers agreeing with me that the light comma is needed, and we could make our consumer voices heard. Anybody out there want to join me?