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Prof. Brooks Landon, U. Iowa, Ph.D. U. Texas at Austin. Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read (Great Courses) (2013). p. 124.

        Listen to the striking opening sentence of Joseph Conrad’s story “The Secret Sharer”:

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes[,] resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes, and crazy of aspect[,] as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen[,] now gone to the other end of the ocean; for there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.

Why didn’t Conrad and other writers use commas as Landon did in square brackets?

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    It feels as though a lot of homework questions are being asked. ??? – DPT Feb 2 '19 at 22:55
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    It reads differently with the extra commas than without and it is possible that Conrad liked the rhythm and music of that sentence as he wrote it, momentum gaining and emphasis where he wanted it. – Rasdashan Feb 2 '19 at 23:11
  • @Rasdashan Please, find me someone who can pronounce that sentence with no break, with no breathe. – rus9384 Feb 7 '19 at 7:21
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    @rus9384 I have no difficulty reading it aloud as punctuated by Conrad. – Rasdashan Feb 7 '19 at 7:31
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Why do writers add unnecessary commas to sentences just because they're long?

While it's true that some writers, maddeningly, do not use sufficient punctuation, it's also the case that some people add punctuation when it's not necessary. Finding that sweet spot is what we all want, but we have different ideas of how to get there.

A comma represents a pause. Sometimes a long sentence needs a harder pause, a period. Sometimes it needs rephrasing. Other times only a comma will do. And sometimes the sentence doesn't need a pause at all.

Why don't writers add commas to lengthy sentences, to make them far more readable?

Here is your title. You can write it with or without a comma. Each way has a different meaning.

With the comma: Why don't they do this? The reason they should do this is to make it more readable.

Without the comma: Readability is the reason writers should add commas to long sentences.

It's subtle but it is a difference in meaning. Both are acceptable but I prefer it without a comma. Even though I'm generally in the comma-heavy writer camp.

In your quoted example, that first added comma is one I'd never add. The other two are fine but I'd much rather break the sentence up into several. Keeping it as one long sentence is what impairs readability. Adding more commas might help a bit, but not as much as changing the sentence structure.

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    And to add to the point that everyone has a different view and style, to me, all those added commas feel wrong, I like the sentence exactly as it was. But then again I’ve been noted to write extremely long sentences without too many pauses... – Jorge Córdoba Feb 3 '19 at 10:37
  • We might even say that writing style approximates speaking style. Some people don't pause when they're talking either. – Cyn says make Monica whole Feb 3 '19 at 16:46
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The difficulty with such a question is in the apparent need to choose which writer to side with. Are the sentences of Conrad 1910 too taxing? Do those in Landon 2013 go too far the other way? I hope to show this is the wrong question.

Punctuation other than .!? etc. has the same clause-separating role as conjunctions. The ideal clause would work well as a standalone sentence. A theory of where punctuation belongs in a sentence gives way to a theory of how it could be split into sentences. Let's compare two ways to do this to see which works best. What Landon did:

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes. They resembled a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences. The system was incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes. It was also crazy of aspect. In this sense it was as if it was abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen. Imagine that tribe now gone to the other end of the ocean. For there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.

Now what Conrad did:

On my right hand there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences. This system was incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes. It was also crazy of aspect as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen now gone to the other end of the ocean. For there was no sign of human habitation as far as the eye could reach.

Each sentence I've used so far has avoided punctuation between clauses. Colons are an exception if you consider "on my right hand" to never begin a sentence herein. I seldom write in that way. I also suspect you'll agree with me it's already grating. Part of the reason is I've also avoided conjunctions. I did that because they share punctuation's effect of joining clauses. I hereby call a moratorium on such stifled expression and, having resolved to use conjunctions and punctuation as I see fit, enjoy casting off my former shackles with such observations as this: when you use "and" near a comma, there's a subtle but important difference between the two positions in which the comma can go.

Now we've convinced ourselves of the dissatisfaction in allowing neither punctuation nor conjunctions to expand what a sentence can do, the original question gives way to that of knowing when to join clauses one way, when to use the other, and when to start a new sentence. In comparing the two

quotation

environments above (excluding that one!), we learn a number of lessons:

  • The extra commas Landon suggested become places that sentences in the Conrad environment are further split in the Landon environment, and they're bad places for such splits. Frankly, neither environment joins enough.
  • If you put Landon's commas back in the Conrad environment, not as sentence splits but as genuine commas, they look more sensible. Unfortunately, this means if Conrad had used both sets of commas the same symbol would have served two very different roles (see the point below). I think that's why he didn't do it.
  • There's a world of difference between the commas in "there were lines of fishing stakes resembling a mysterious system of half-submerged bamboo fences, incomprehensible in its division of the domain of tropical fishes" and "as if abandoned forever by some nomad tribe of fishermen, now gone to the other end of the ocean". The first separates a stake-bamboo comparison from bafflement at why the stakes separate fish; the second makes you think more about nonexistent fishermen and less about the stakes' craziness, which is what we really care about. From Conrad's perspective your commas should separate themes, not help you breathe. (As a reader, you're meant to be going at 400 words per minute anyway.)
  • Even if "going easy" on readers matters to you more than defining punctuation structure based on sentence content, you have to balance the need for breaks with the fact that a sentence feels bigger when it's got too many commas, like the way a meal feels bigger when you serve it on a smaller plate (or so thin people keep telling me).

To these general points I need to add something else relevant to understanding the Conrad-Landon contrast.

You owe it to yourself to read the first paragraph or two of the story. I would have quoted some more of it, but I knew I couldn't stop. It's clear Conrad used a succession of long, complex sentences there as a matter of style, building his world and making you love it. That's what a writer does when they're confident their reader's there for a ride.

Landon, by contrast, wanted to teach you how to write a sentence, so it was important you understood it effortlessly the first time you read it, or you'd focus on all the wrong things. So yes, that needed bonus commas. But above all, Landon kept them parenthetical to make obvious part of Conrad's genius was in what was beneath the surface. Conrad knew those gaps were there; he would have deliberated over which comma-shaped holes needed commas. And, if you read that opening paragraph, you'll see he often felt semicolons were suitable too.

Oh, one more thing I was reminded of when I read Conrad: if you're ever unsure how to break up a sentence, just read it aloud. He made plenty of prudent choices.

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    What an absolutely brilliant answer. In my opinion, that is. – storbror Feb 7 '19 at 12:01
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It really depends on the sentence, in my opinion. For example, this is almost a grammatically correct sentence, however, I might want to use something other than commas, and that changes the tone of the sentence.

The sentence above rewritten: For example, this is almost a grammatically correct sentence. However, I might want to use something other than commas; that changes the tone of the sentence.

(Sidenote: I removed the word "and", only because otherwise that sentence would not be grammatically correct)

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