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 comma as Landon did in square brackets?

  • Great writers write words, sentences and books, not commas. Spelling, punctuation, fonts and page layout are the work of copy editors and printers. Don't bother Mr. Conrad, ask the copy editor why he wasn't more generous with commas. Perhaps he was an eco-warrior? Commas are made of ink, and printed on paper, both of which are composed largely of carbon.
    – user14111
    Feb 3, 2019 at 5:57
  • 2
    You might be interested in Timothy Dexter, who published a booklet with no punctuation at all, but added a page of punctuation marks at the end, so his readers "may peper and solt it as they plese".
    – user14111
    Feb 3, 2019 at 6:04
  • I'd disagree with the first comma: I wouldn't put a pause there, certainly, and if you're focused on rhythm then that's what matters.
    – Stuart F
    Jan 31, 2022 at 16:39

1 Answer 1


There are two theories about the proper use of commas in written English. Theory 1: commas mark pauses in the spoken sentence. Theory 2: commas mark syntatic divisions of the sentence. The one is a matter of prosody, the other of grammar. Editors, schoolteachers, printers, and book writers tend to obey theory 2. As Conrad (or his editors or printers) did. But Landon is making a prosodic point: the sentence, when properly spoken, has a rhythmic structure. Clauses are separated with pauses, and his stuck-in commas reflect his understanding of where those pauses are.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.