Do we know each other well enough for me to ask you a personal question? I hope I don't offend you by asking.
Are you a light or heavy punctuator?
I understand that comma usage is a matter of personal preference and that not everyone is comfortable talking about such a delicate matter. But, well … maybe it's time we had this conversation.
Which are you?
Don't be ashamed to be one or the other. Either is acceptable. Really. You'll notice I've used only one comma so far, although now I've used two, and I guess I could have dropped in one or two more. Rather than "Are you a heavy or light punctuator?" I might have written, for example, "Are you a heavy, or light, punctuator?" So now I've used seven.
Maybe you've been avoiding the question because it makes you uncomfortable, or maybe you're not even sure what a light or heavy punctuator is. Either way, I can help you. (That makes nine.)
Put the commas where you think they should go in this sentence: "Over time I noticed certain errors in comma usage and after I recognized a trend I compiled a list of rules."
If you thought the sentence was fine without commas, or if you put one comma between usage and and, you're a light punctuator. If you punctuated the sentence like this, "Over time, I noticed certain patterns in comma usage, and, after I recognized a trend, I compiled a list of rules," you're a heavy punctuator. And if you punctuated the sentence like this, "Over time, I noticed certain errors in comma usage, and after I recognized a trend, I compiled a list of rules," you're something in between.
As you may have noticed, I'm something in between. And at this point in the evolution of the English language, it's probably better if you were, too. (I mean, if you were too.) Now don't get me wrong. It really is all right to be a light punctuator, at least for certain readers (generally younger ones) in less formal writing (which is what we're doing more and more of these days). And it really is all right to be a heavy punctuator. After all, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were heavy punctuators, and they did all right for themselves. One should note, however, that they lived in the 19th century.
So if you're thinking you might want to move a tad toward the middle, here's a comma rule to guide you. Omit commas after introductory phrases unless they meet one of three conditions: (1) They're longer than three or four words, (2) they contain a verb form (as in "As you may have noticed, I'm something in between" and "After reading this column, I feel a whole lot better about myself"), or (3) they make a statement (that is, they indicate the writer's attitude or point of view, as in "Unfortunately, I missed my plane.")
For more guidance on mandatory(,) vs. optional(,) commas, Google "Wilbers comma rules."
Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.wilbers.com.