Monday, September 7, 2009

To Comma or Not to Comma, That Is the Question

As I edited lately,I noticed more comma problems. Either commas are scattered like flower petals or not used correctly.

Commas really are not living entities that reproduce and decide where to live and where not to live. Neither are they snow flakes that land wherever the wind may take them. They are not decorations to be used or not as a person’s fancy may decide. Commas actually have a vital and exact use in writing stories, poetry, essays, or articles. Let’s visit Comma World and see if we can discover when and where commas should be used.

We should use a comma to separate words in a series, and use a comma before the conjunction, too, unless we’re writing a journalistic article. In a newspaper article, no comma is used before the conjunction. In literary writing, such as essays, stories, and poetry, one is.

Error: Wolves are found in Alaska Canada and Minnesota.
Correct: Wolves are found in Alaska, Canada, and Minnesota.

Names directly addressed need to be set off by commas.

Error: Don’t run on the ice Mary, or you’ll fall.
Correct: Don’t run on the ice, Mary, or you’ll fall.

Commas should be used to set off conjunctive adverbs that introduce a clause or sentence. However, internal or final conjunctive adverbs should be set off by commas only when they interrupt the flow of a sentence.

Error: Meanwhile the Everly Brothers introduced country harmonies to rock-and-roll.
Correct: Meanwhile, the Everly Brothers introduced country harmonies to rock-and-roll.

Mild interjections not needing exclamation points will need to be set off by commas. These interjections include words such as yes, no, well, okay, and oh.

Error: Well you aren’t clear when you write.
Correct: Well, you aren’t clear when you write.

Error: When I saw the hole in the offensive line wow I knew the safety would sack the quarterback.
Correct: When I saw the hole in the offensive line, wow, I knew the safety would sack the quarterback.

Another place commas are used would be between main clauses unless they are extremely short clauses. The comma comes before the conjunction (and, or, nor, but, yet, sometimes for) joining the main clauses in a compound sentence.

Error: Rabbits usually run when sensing danger but sometimes they freeze in place.
Correct: Rabbits usually run when sensing danger, but sometimes they freeze in place.

Equal adjectives should be separated with a comma. One test is to see if the word and could be used between the adjectives. If so, then a comma is needed.

Error: The velvet skirt fell in soft flowing folds.
Correct: The velvet skirt fell in soft, flowing folds.(Test: The velvet skirt fell in long and flowing folds.)

Adjectives that must in a specific order are not separated by commas.

Error: They have many, clever ways of surviving.
Correct: They have many clever ways of surviving.

A phrase adding nonessential information should be set off by commas.

Error: Wolves in pairs or sometimes in packs hunt animals such as deer and caribou.
Correct: Wolves, in pairs or sometimes in packs, hunt animals such as deer and caribou.

A comma is needed after introductory words.

Error: To be sure smaller animals can make fierce pets.
Correct: To be sure, smaller animals can make fierce pets.

A phrase that is essential to the meaning of sentence should not be set off by commas.

Error: Animals, falling into this category, include rodents and rabbits.
Correct: Animals falling into this category include rodents and rabbits.

A clause which doesn’t add essential information in a sentence should be set off by commas. (A clause has a subject and verb that go together.)

Error: Clowns who usually cause people to laugh instill fear in some people.
Correct: Clowns, who usually cause people to laugh, instill fear in some people.

One should not set off essential clauses with commas.

Error: The wolf, that is found in Alaska, is called the gray wolf.
Correct: The wolf that is found in Alaska is called the gray wolf.

Non-essential appositives should be set off by commas. (An appositive is a noun or pronoun - word, phrase, or clause - placed after another noun or pronoun to provide more information or rename the first.)

Error: The gray wolf a wild species of dog is also called the timber wolf.
Correct: The gray wolf, a wild species of dog, is also called the timber wolf.

But an appositive essential to the meaning of the sentence should not be set off by commas.

Error: The writer, Mark Twain, writes about a young man who runs away.
Correct: The writer Mark Twain writes about a young man who runs away.

Sometimes a name can be non-essential, and sometimes it can be essential. If a person has only one brother, then the brother’s name would be non-essential. If he has more than one brother, then the brother’s name would be essential.

Examples:My brother, Bob, lives in New York. (“I” have only one brother.)
My brother Bob lives in New York. (“I” have two or more brothers.)

Punctuation in poetry is the same as in other types of writing. Commas add to the meaning of poetry and allows the reader to better understand what the poet tries to say.

Therefore, the answer to the original question is one should comma when and where needed.

(taken from Vivian Zabel's teaching notes and lesson plans)



Holly Jahangiri said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! This should be required reading. My red Sharpie and I are grateful. Could you tackle extraneous apostrophes next?

Vivian Zabel said...

Oh, extraneous apostrophes, fly-away commas that hang upside down, like comma bats.

I'll try to do that.

unwriter said...

Don't forget the classic - No price too high when he meant to say, no, price too high. A company can go broke on an error like that. Good post and quite informative.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Good advice! This is definitely going in my Friday roundup.

L. Diane Wolfe “Spunk On A Stick”

Charlotte Phillips said...

Thanks, Vivian. This is very helpful.

Holly Jahangiri said...

"Comma bats"? LOL - never heard that expression. That's priceless. I love it! I just keep hearing the song: "Comma, comma, DOWN do-be-doo down DOWN!"

Vivian Zabel said...

I'm glad people are finding the article helpful.

Thanks for stopping by and letting me know.

Well, Holly, don't apostrophes look like commas hanging upside down? Bats hang upside down.

Karen Walker said...

This is so helpful.I'm going to cut and paste and keep for reference. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Commas are my love, and my nemesis. Thanks for this post!


Katie Hines said...

Oy, my head is spinning after this great comma class. I'm printing this one out and saving it!

Cheryl said...

Great article. I am a person who puts in commas where they don't belong. Then I have to go through and edit them out later, and I still miss some. Arg!


Holly Jahangiri said...

Oh, they do, absolutely - your description of them was perfect!

Vivian Zabel said...

Commas seem to give most people problems. I know they did students. Sometimes I have to think and remember whether one goes someplace or not.

Holly, I'm looking through my notes and lesson plans for comma bats.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Commas have always been my writing nemesis. Thank you, Vivian.

Btw, you've just received the Kreativ Blogger's Award from me at Mysterious People. Please read the rules and pass it on to seven other worthy bloggers:

Beverly Stowe McClure said...

Commas, ugh. Thanks for the great post. I shall refer to it often. :)


Helen said...

Commas tend to trip up writers. They either scatter them everywhere or use few, if any. Good advice and rules. Thanks very much.

Straight From Hel

Sheila Deeth said...

Ooh. This is great! Thank you.

Cara Lopez Lee said...

Thank you for addressing the journalistic versus literary use of commas in a series. After many years in journalism, I've grown accustomed to skipping the comma before the conjunction. When I started writing books, I continued the practice. I went by the theory that the word "and" replaced the comma, and vice versa. Lately, I started using the comma before the conjunction again, but only in a series of phrases, to avoid confusion. I still skipped it in a simple series. It's good to know I should use it every time, eliminating any questions.

It's strange that I never learned this rule before: I consider Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" my writer's bible, and those gentlemen agree with you. However, I once owned an Associated Press Stylebook, which my journalism instructors, news directors, and editors taught me to consider gospel. Thinking that book answered the comma question, I never bothered to look it up in Strunk and White.

It will be interesting to see how my editor reacts when I share this with him. He, too, is a former journalist, so he might balk at adding all those commas to my memoir. Even now, though I agree with you, I'm waffling a bit.

Some respected modern writers believe commas are for cowards. This, too, has sent me searching through my manuscript, wondering if I'm a chicken. I love Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which skips most commas as a stylistic way to emphasize the starkness of a post-apocalyptic world. However, I tell beginning writers that, before we break the rules, we must first know and understand the rules. Then we must know why we're breaking them.

Great scholars sit in rooms and argue these points for hours. While it would be grammatical anarchy to allow every mistake of the masses to become rule, we know that some mistakes, if made often enough, will become the rule. Whatever comes of our mistakes in the future, good for you for passing on the rules as they stand today!

Holly Jahangiri said...

Cara, I love serial commas and despise the journalistic style of omitting them. However, it is a question of style, at that point, more than of grammar. Using commas where needed, regardless of the situation, if understanding of the sentence is at issue, is what matters. As for style, you do what your employer demands of you.

Paul McDermott said...

From a masochist who actually ENJOYS proofreading as a favour for friends ....

Shakespeare (who else???!!) pokes gentle fun at the MISUSE of commas AND full stops in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" [(5.1.114-24) ]

I have used this passage with English students aged 11-18 with hilarious results ....

"If we offend, it is with our goodwill.

That you should think we come not to offend,

But with goodwill. To show our simple skill,

That is the true beginning of our end.

Consider, then, we come but in despite.

We do not come, as minding to content you,

Our true intent is. All for your delight

We are not here. That you should here repent you,

The actors are at hand, and by their show,

You shall know all that you are like to know.

Cara Lopez Lee said...

Holly & Vivian,
Yay! my editor agrees with you, me, and my beloved Strunk & White. So, I will now happily leave my comma confusion behind and clarify all series with that final, elusive little curve before the conjunction. Of course, if newspapers survive, and I get another freelance gig, I may yet be forced to eat my words... and the correct commas that go with them. Until then, thank you for curing me of my misbegotten ways.

Vivian Zabel said...

When I taught newspaper, yearbook, literary magazine, and English/composition, I had to switch back and forth between the need for the comma before the conjunction in a list and not to use a comma.

Good thing I can switch hats easier than many people.

Connie Clark said...

Hi Vivian!
I enjoyed this article very much. It answered some questions for me. Maybe next year at the Muse Online Conference you could offer an English refresher course. It's easy to drift away from proper language, especially if it's been a long time in taking a course. I admit it gets a little confusing sometimes.I'd be the first to sign up!

Anonymous said...


This article was very helpful. You touched upon a couple of placement which puzzled me. Thank you so much for sharing.