John McIntyre

McIntyre: Take a little breath | COMMENTARY

Today let’s look at some commas you don’t need but might want.

Peter D. Kramer (@PeterDKramer) has posted a question on Twitter:


“She was unmarried until the age of fifty-nine, and does not have children.” In, yes, @NewYorker.

What do grammarians make of commas separating subjects from their verbs?


I have complained before about the regrettable tendency among journalists to omit the required comma between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction while insisting on an unnecessary comma in a compound predicate.

But there are in fact occasions when you will use a discretionary comma, as in the example above, to purpose, to provide a slight pause meant to allow a little additional attention and emphasis on what follows. That is presumably what the New Yorker writer intended.

In a reply tweet the estimable Benjamin Dreyer spoke of Edmund Morris and “the comma of luftpause.”

Luftpause is a musical term for a very slight break allowing a vocalist to take a breath or a brief interruption in the music. Near the end of the galop section of the overture to William Tell, Rossini inserts just such a luftpause, a full two-beat measure of silence in the orchestra which you may never have noticed but which sets up the conclusion of the overture. It works in prose as well.

Scattering discretionary commas casually in compound predicates where no emphasis is intended wastes punctuation. But a luftpause draws attention subtly, less stridently than an em dash, to what follows.