The comma: punctuating or puncturing?

We use fewer commas now than in centuries past. Some eighteenth century writers, annoy me by putting commas between the subject and verb of a sentence, as I did here. Yuck.

Here’s a sentence I found in a concert review from an 1833 newspaper. Apparently the trombonist was the best musician in a bad orchestra. Aren’t you glad no one writes like this any more?

We can ourselves vouch, that when the Instrumentalists, on Thursday evening, were, in the Sinfonia, which commenced the second part, all awry, he pulled them together in the most admirable style, and ceased not until he had put them safely under the leader’s control.

I suppose you can still find monstrosities like that in doctoral dissertations, but most modern writing uses simpler sentences and many fewer commas. Still, we have to know where commas belong and where they don’t.

A comma in the right place gives readers a chance to breathe. It separates words in a sentence into intelligible units. That is, it punctuates it’s part of the sentence. A missing comma, or one in the wrong place, punctures the nearing of the sentence.

Consider how ambiguous this familiar verse of Scripture is with no punctuation:

Let him who steals steal no more let him work.

If we add some punctuation, we might come up with this sentence:

Let him who steals, steal, no more let him work.

OK, the second comma there ought to be a semicolon. More on that later. As punctuated, the sentence means exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. Look what simply changing the punctuation does to the sentence:

Let him who steals steal no more; let him work.

Commas where they don’t belong can result in sentences like, “The panda eats, shoots, and leaves.” An omitted comma can result in sentences like, “Let’s eat Grandma!”

Here are some rules for using commas.
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You need to use a comma

  1. after an introductory word or phrase. Example: Finding the shop closed,Nancy turned away in disappointment.
  2. after an introductory dependent clause. Example: When a bill comes, it’s best to pay it right away.
  3. before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, so, yet) that links two independent clauses. Example: Your writing must communicate clearly, so you need to learn the rules of punctuation.
  4. to separate parenthetical words, phrases, or clauses from the rest of the sentence. Example: Paul Simon, Senator from Illinois, always wore bow ties. Another example: My sister, who is the first in our family to earn a Ph.D., always insists on being called “doctor” even in the most informal situations. Another example: Negative campaign ads, for example, are both unavoidable and despised by everyone.
  5. to separate three or more items in a series, whether words, phrases, or clauses. Hmm, that’s it’s own example isn’t it? The series, by the way, will have a conjunction before the last member. The comma before that conjunction is called the Oxford comma. It is controversial. In this country, journalists omit it. Ironically, it is less used in England than in the US. Even more ironically, the University of Oxford style guide recently recommended avoiding it.
  6. to separate two or more adjectives that modify one noun individually. Example: The big, bad wolf came out of the forest.
  7. to set off direct quotations. Example: In his excitement the young man shouted, “It’s a father! I’m a girl! I’m a girl!”
  8. to set off mild interjections that begin a sentence. Did you notice the example in no. 5?
  9. in names, addresses, numbers, dates, and titles. Examples: Cal Ripkin, Jr. — June 6, 1944 — Civic Center, 600 S. Main St., Generic City, Iowa — 50,987,654 (warning: Europeans use periods there and a comma where we use a decimal point) — Dr. Jerry Kraus, D.D.S. Notice that when any of these (except large numbers) occur in the middle of a sentence, they become parenthetical expressions and require a comma after them.

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Don’t use a comma

  1. between two independent clauses that are NOT linked by a coordinating conjunction. Incorrect example: America must save energy, we must all do our part. There are two ways to correct this error: use a semi-colon instead, or use a period and make two sentences of it.
  2. to separate compound items joined by “and.” Incorrect example: The team won because they were the most determined, and best prepared.
  3. after a verb and before its predicate. Incorrect example: My dogs have never missed a chance, to chase a squirrel.
  4. between the subject and verb. Incorrect example: The sentence I quoted earlier from the 1833 newspaper, is too long.
  5. before modifiers like subordinate conjunctions or prepositional phrases (unless one is needed for clarification). Incorrect example: Because they had no idea how many choices the fair offered, George and Martha bought their lunch,from the first vendor they came to.

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Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Mark Hillary.

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