We sprinkle them through our work like extra salt on an order of fries (or chips for you British lot). A moderate additional amount of seasoning can’t hurt, but if over done, food becomes inedible. We do it almost without thinking. I’m talking about commas. I have to admit that I am far from an expert on punctuation. I thought, therefor, it was high time I learned about how to use it properly.
I recently picked up a delightful book that has been in print since 2004 and was extremely popular (a #1 bestseller, in fact) with those finicky sticklers for proper language: the Brits. Lynne Truss is the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, in which she discusses the correct usage of the apostrophe, comma, semicolon and other similar punctuation marks. If you think that sounds dry you will be surprised to find that she makes her point with a wit and style that is very entertaining as well as educational. We would all have a better grasp of English grammar if we had Ms. Truss for a teacher in middle school.
The comma can be a sticky little mark and while its use can not be fully learned from a set of rules, there are rules that will help guide you. This is not an exhaustive look at commas, and I again encourage you to read Ms Truss’ book. Let’s get to it shall we?
The Rule for Commas in a List
This is a basic rule that most of us, who engage in writing, will be familiar with. When listing three or more words in a sentence you separate the listed words with a comma, but one is not required in front of the “and” before the last item listed:
Sara opened the door to find Tom, Dick, Harry and Horatio on her stoop.
It is appropriate to place a comma in a list anywhere it can be substituted by the word “and” or the word “or.”
Sara opened the door to find Tom and Dick and Harry and Horatio on her stoop.
You can see why the last “and” isn’t needed. There is already one there. If that seems clear enough we now muddy the waters with the “Oxford Comma,” which is an exception to this rule. The Oxford comma is the addition of that final comma before the word “and.”
Sara opened the door to find Tom, Dick, Harry, and Horatio on her stoop.
Truss tells us not to be too rigid about using the Oxford comma. She will employ it in instances when it helps to clarify. It can help logically organize words to reduce confusion.
The plater was arranged with lettuce and tomato, beans and rice, and peas and carrots.
If the above example were to exclude the Oxford comma the second half of the sentence would appear as a list of individual rather than paired items. The rule of lists also covers adjectives in the same way, substituting for the word “and,” when modifying the same thing to the same extent as in:
It was a bright, sunny day. (in other words, it was a bright day and a sunny day)
It would be incorrect, though, to use a comma in the following example:
He caught a glimpse of a rare spotted owl.
The word “rare” modifies “spotted owl” as a single unit, and no comma is necessary.
The Rule for Using Commas to Join
The rule of joining commas is short and sweet. A comma should be used in front of a conjunction (such as “and,” “or,” “but,” “yet” and “while”) when it is employed to marry two complete sentences into one.
My eyes were bigger than my stomach, and I stopped eating long before my plate was empty.
The Rule for Commas Filling Gaps
This is another simple one, but the rule is rarely used these days. A comma can be effectively employed to imply missing words.
Derek was a boy of seven years; Michael, five.
The Rule of a Comma to Set Off Dialogue
If a dialogue tag comes before the quote use a comma in front of the dialogue. Similarly, if the sentence continues beyond the quoted dialogue, use a comma at the end of the quoted portion of the sentence
Carol said, “You must have had your sense of romance surgically removed.”
“You must have had your sense of romance surgically removed,” Carol said.
An exception is that if the quote is a question requiring a question mark where the separating comma would normally go, use the question mark.
“Have you had your sense of romance surgically removed?” asked Carol.
The Rule of a Comma to Set Off an Interjection
An interjection is a word that shows emotion and is unrelated to the rest of the sentence. If the emotion is very strong then an exclamation point should be used.
Comma: “Lordy, look at the amount of food.”
Exclamation point: “Holy crap! That’s a shit-load of food!”
I recently violated the Interjection rule (or maybe the stupid rule, which I will discuss in a moment). I have been trying to learn to avoid using unnecessary commas willy-nilly like so much salt on the aforementioned French fries. However, it was an omitted comma which became a minor source of embarrassment for me. A perfect illustration of how the lack of a comma can significantly alter the meaning of a sentence comes from my short story that I posted recently. Eagle-eyed Steve Meitz was the one to point it out. The guilty passage was a bit of dialogue that went like this:
“Nathan!” Jamie motioned urgently to him across the parking lot, and he came trotting over to her. “I had another dream.”
“Was it a sex dream, and was I in it?”
“No asshole.” Jamie punched him on the shoulder.
Did you catch it? I’ll give you the clue that Steve gave me. He said he pictured a Ken doll when he read the offending sentence. Yep, it’s the uttered epithet at the end, which should be:
“No, asshole.” Jamie punched him on the shoulder.
Without the comma to set off the interjection the implication is that Nathan presumably does not possess that particular anatomical feature. That certainly wasn’t the intent.
The Rule of Bracketing Commas
Things begin to get a little fuzzy here requiring some amount of common sense and judgement. Commas are used in pairs to set off additional information, a subordinate clause if you will, that could easily be plucked from the sentence still leaving it largely intact.
Darth Vader, who wears black well, slowly became evil over the course of his life.
Be sure not to fall into the trap of setting off the beginning of a “weak interruption” without defining the end of it with a second comma. There are also cases where using bracketing commas would be inappropriate. No commas are needed if the clause is an integral part of the sentence, which would alter the meaning were it removed. Consider the following two examples:
Those in the crowd who got to shake the hand of the President were thrilled.
Those in the crowd, who got to shake the hand of the President, were thrilled.
The first example implies that only those who got to shake the President’s hand went away happy. The second version, with commas, gives the impression that everyone in the crowd was a happy puppy. The clause about getting to shake the President’s hand is a defining clause and therefore does not require commas.
The Rule of Stupid Comma Use
Finally, Lynne Truss urges writers not to use commas, “like a stupid person,” and she gives the following four erroneous examples:
“1. Leonora walked on her head, a little higher than usual.”
“2. The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the river bank.”
“3. Don’t guess, use a time or watch.”
“4. The convict said the judge is mad.”
Number one requires the comma be moved so that it falls after the word “on.” Sentence two implies a swimming vehicle, and a comma should be inserted after the word “sank” for clarification. Example three should have a semicolon or a period in the place of the comma. The fourth is grammatically correct as written unless the judge is indicating that the convict is mad in which case the sentence should be punctuated as: “The convict, said the judge, is mad.”
This is a brief distillation of an entire chapter on comma usage in Lynne Truss’ book. Only the iceberg’s tip has been explored. There are oodles of references by countless grammarians. I hope this whets your appetite. If you find any erroneous information, please point it out with a comment and I will rectify the mistake. As I said at the top of this blog, I am by no means an expert. I am trying to increase my understanding of grammar and punctuation, and this post has helped solidify a few rules in my own mind even if it doesn’t help any one else.