Make your sentences poorer, get out of the three comma club

Bottle of Tres Comas held by Russ Hanneman, character on Silicon ValleyThere’s a running gag in the show Silicon Valley about a character obsessed with being in the “three comma” club. Being a billionaire, in other words. When he loses enough money to drop from $1.2 billion to “merely” $900 million, he’s “financially ruined” and despondent. Judging by the way some folks write sentences, they’re just as afraid to lose a comma.

Me? I don’t want any billionaire sentences in my copy1. One comma is plenty, most of the time. Two, if you’re feeling very extravagant, or have a particularly complex thought to express. (Get out of here with semicolons. Don’t need ’em. Take your fancy punctuation somewhere else.)

Three, though? About 95% of the time when I get a sentence with three or more commas, it’s because the author tried to shove in way too much information in one sentence.

An example:

Russ Hanneman, the multi-billionaire who put “radio on the Internet,” is proud to announce today the Tres Comas brand of Tequila, a fine liquor that is suitable for billionaires, and made exclusively for Hanneman in Mexico, in an undisclosed location only visited by an order of monks and brewmasters, to achieve a unique taste.

Try reading that sentence aloud. I see even worse on a regular basis in copy I edit or that slips through to publication by other sites. It’s fine as a first draft to just drop all the ideas on paper. Just shoot ’em out there. But you’ve got to go back and relieve some of those commas of their burden. Let’s tax the rich and send those sentences down to the two-comma club. Try this:

Russ Hanneman is proud to announce the Tres Comas brand of Tequila, made exclusively in an undisclosed location in Mexico. Hanneman sought out a order of monks and brewmasters to develop Tres Comas’ unique taste. The man who put “radio on the Internet,” Hanneman is a multi-billionaire who wanted a Tequila with a unique taste suited for those in the “three comma” club but affordable by mere millionaires.

If I tinkered with it a bit more I could shorten it and make it even more punchy:

Multi-billionaire Russ Hanneman is back with Tres Comas Tequila. After putting “radio on the Internet,” Hanneman sought a Tequila suited for those in the “three comma” club that’s affordable by mere millionaires. He teamed up with an order of monks and brewmasters to create Tres Comas in an undisclosed location in Mexico.

It’s OK if the result is a bit longer, if it’s easier to read. The point is to avoid overcrowding a sentence with too many ideas or facts.

Can you get away with a billionaire sentence once in a while? Sure. Just like any guideline for writing, there are exceptions. But if you’re reading through a piece of writing and see a lot of long sentences stitched together with commas when they could be broken up, break ’em up. Give it another edit so that readers can sail through the writing without getting tangled up or tired out.

[1] My writing and editing are pretty much all for the web. This advice may not be relevant or applicable to fiction writing, academic writing, or whatnot. Then again, I still find shorter sentences easier on my aging brain. So be kind to the reader and consider whether you need billionaire sentences.


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