Way back in December of last year I published a post on commas and promised to have a second, follow-up post. I never made good on that promise, so I am making up for it now.
In my last grammar post I explained the mechanics of interruptions: the dash, the parentheses and square brackets. For the next two Comedy Grammar posts we’ll explore pauses, first the comma and afterward the semicolon and the colon.
The comma: take a breath, but not too big
The comma is the most used punctuation mark in the English language. It is essential for separating entities, for adding rhythm to your writing, for (literally) giving your reader a break, and for assigning meaning. Let’s go over these one by one:
Separating entities. Many of you are already familiar with my famous “garlic salt and pepper” example. With one comma you have two spices: garlic salt, and pepper. With two commas you have three spices: garlic, salt, and pepper.
Other entities to separate are verbs: “I came, I saw, I conquered”; clauses: “My sister, who lives in Montana, just came to visit”; and participle phrases: “Wishing to rent a car, Mr. Hertz went to Mr. Budget near the Alamo because he’s Thrifty.”
We also need commas to separate adjectives. Here’s a brilliant tweet, which is also a wonderful example of someone who didn’t use commas with his adjectives. Naughty Matthew.
Adding rhythm to your writing. Compare this:
I was the youngest man on board – barring the second mate. I was untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility and was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted.
The youngest man on board (barring the second mate), and untried as yet by a position of the fullest responsibility, I was willing to take the adequacy of the others for granted.
The latter is a sentence from the short story, “The Secret Sharer,” by Joseph Conrad. Notice that the first example, which I “edited” and punctuated myself, is choppier, despite its second sentence being a bit of a run-on. Moreover, the sentences don’t quite jibe together. The sentence by Conrad flows better and affords continuity to the young captain’s description of himself.
Giving your reader a break. Which would you rather read:
First I went to Fiji and then I went to Borneo and I thought that perhaps I’d swing over to Indonesia too but at the last minute I got malaria.
First I went to Fiji, then I went to Borneo, and I thought that perhaps I’d swing over to Indonesia, too, but at the last minute I got malaria.
Not that the latter is such a great sentence, but at least it’s correct. (Note: You don’t have to put a comma after an adverb, i.e., “First, I went to Fiji.” It’s up to you.)
Assigning meaning. “Greg, the magician who is being held hostage by angry rabbits, has contacted the NYPD via telepathy.” The placement of the first comma implies that we know there is a magician who has been kidnapped, but we don’t know his name. If, however, we say “Greg the magician, who is being held hostage by angry rabbits, has contacted the NYPD via telepathy,” the meaning would be that we know Greg the magician but we didn’t know that he had been kidnapped. (P.s. Did you notice that the commas in these examples are separating clauses?)
A few fun facts from Fowler
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (was selling for a penny on Amazon last week) has a few rules for commas, among them:
- Don’t use a comma to separate subject from verb: “Michael, went to the store to buy eggs.” No, no, no.
- Don’t forget the comma that keeps confluences parallel: “She was an earnest, if not experienced, secretary.” The comma is needed after experienced because the word experienced has the same “weight” as earnest and thus must be punctuated the same. Not everyone agrees with this rule, but I’m sure they’ve been wrong before. All kidding aside, however, in more informal prose you can sometimes get away with not using the second comma in a confluence, but don’t push your luck.
- Use an extra comma in compound entities: “John Smith, junior president of the Rotary Club” means that John Smith is the junior, as opposed to the senior, president of the Rotary club; “John Smith, junior, president of the Rotary Club” means that John Smith II is the president of the Rotary Club. His father’s name is John Smith, and his son is John Smith III.
- Similarly, “She was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 1, 2011, at the UCLA Medical Center.” Both the extra comma after California and the one after 2011 are essential, as they tell the reader which entities go together. In this sentence 1) the city and state go together, and 2) the month, date, and year go together.
- Even if you’re British you might need the Oxford comma sometimes: “Doubleday, William Morrow, Harper and Row, and Penguin are all publishing houses.” The Oxford comma is the one after Row, and informs us that there is no such publishing company as “Row and Penguin.”
Got it; what’s next?
Next is to be more aware of how you use, or don’t use, commas in your writing. Remember that writing, while obviously visual, is also aural. It needs to have rhythm and it needs to be structured in such a way that your audience can understand the meaning without your having to spell everything out. Often, just a few punctuation tweaks are the key.