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Writer’s Craft #10 Commas

March 7, 2011

Commas. I’ve read the grammar books. I’ve prepared cheat sheets for using them correctly, and I’ve presumed to correct other people on where the pesky things get placed. But the more I write the less I think I’ve got the comma nailed.

Sometimes I wonder if anyone really knows when a comma is necessary and when it’s optional, and sometimes I think real sentences simply resist belonging to any of the well-defined categories.

So here’s the plan for getting us to help each other with the comma thing. I’ll start off by giving some examples I feel confident about, and I want you to add to the list.

#1 appositive

Eler, the brother of the liege of Nersal, loves poetry too much to be a proper Nersallian.

The appositive is something that could substitute for a name. In this case, “the brother of the liege of Nersal” could be used instead of Eler. Used as an appositive, it provides a descriptive element. Appositives should be set off with commas.

#2 before a conjunction

She had hardly been able to draw breath when she saw Vic – of all people! – strike Amel, but by the time she recovered from the shock she had no time to do anything but get out.

Place a comma before a conjunction. The most common conjunctions are ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘but’. Personally, I leave this comma out in the case of very short sentences.

She saw Vic strike Amel but couldn’t stop him.

Your turn! Add a type of comma you are confident about. Or ask a question about one you aren’t.

And remember to e-mail your questions, suggestions or offers to guest feature on The Clarion Writer’s Craft to lynda@okalrel.org. Use the word ‘Clarion’ in the subject line.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Kenneth O'Shaughnessy permalink
    March 7, 2011 6:10 am

    I tend to be a comma over user (I blame it on Johnny Hart!), so I found this poem by Phillis Levin quite enjoyable: http://www.versedaily.org/2008/openfield.shtml

    One of my big issues is whether, when writing a list of related things (“There was a jar, a pan and a pot.”), I should use a comma between the next to last thing and the and. Some say yes, some say no, and so I tend to use whatever sounds best when I read it in my head.

    • March 7, 2011 10:46 pm

      Thanks for the poem! I’ve opted for “in in doubt, don’t use a comma” which is probably no better than oversuing them.

  2. March 7, 2011 7:14 am

    Here’s one that’s commonly debated: the serial comma.

    The two sides as debated are often:

    I want to eat A, B, and C.

    vs

    I want to eat A, B and C.

    Personally, I stick by the former as I believe it allows for less confusion. As an English teacher, that’s also what I teach. I’ve read various grammar books (both the technical and general use ones) and there are conflicting accounts as to whether or not to actually add that last comma. My side of the argument goes that that last comma separates C as a distinct item.

    The argument goes on that with the last comma, the three become distinct whereas without, there’s ambiguity as to whether B and C should be considered as separate items, or two different ones. Personally, I prefer to add that last comma, but I’m also interested in seeing what others think.

    • Mishell Baker permalink*
      March 7, 2011 7:57 am

      Ah, the much-debated final serial comma. Frankly, I’ve never heard a good argument for omitting it. Omitting it causes way too much ambiguity. “Buried near him in the cemetery were his two wives, Jane Smith and Catherine Jones.” Were Jane and Catherine his two wives, or were there four women buried near him?

      Oh, and the long vs. short example Lynda gives is correct, and here is why: you need the comma before the conjunction if each verb has its own subject, and not if the verbs share a subject. For example:

      “She hated sandwiches, but she loved soup.”
      “She hated sandwiches but loved soup.”

      One of the most common mistakes in my drafts is that I always try to stick a comma before the “but” in the second example.

      • March 7, 2011 10:47 pm

        Ah, so I would have to use a comma if the shorter example was:

        She saw Vic strike Amel, but she couldn’t stop him.

  3. March 7, 2011 8:34 am

    I, too, am a proponent of the last serial comma, with the exact same frame of mind to let C establish its own distinct self! I am C! Not B and C!

    Thanks, too, for the clarification on the “Before a Conjunction” rule. Mishell states it succinctly enough, joggin’ this ol’ noggin to bear in mind the subject before arbitrarily plunking down that comma.

    So, does anyone have wisdom and/or preference to share on comma use to denote a brief pause, as opposed to the ellipsis?

    • March 7, 2011 10:54 pm

      A brief pause? Interesting. I thought using a comma “where you need a pause” was out of fashion although I am equally sure this advice has been dished out by authorities in my life, at one time or another. Teachers maybe? Use of the ellipsis vs the em dash is a subject I plan to take up in another article so I’ll set it aside for the moment.

      Is this the sort of thing you are thinking of?

      How could he think such a thing, when he knew how she felt about him.

      vs.

      How could he think such a thing … he knew how she felt about him.

  4. March 7, 2011 10:23 am

    Back to the orginal posting : “Place a comma before a conjunction. The most common conjunctions are ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘but’. Personally, I leave this comma out in the case of very short sentences”

    The comma comes before a coordinate conjunction (for, and, but, nor, or, yet, so) only when they are followed by an independent clause. This signals the reader that it is not a continuation of the previous phrase.

    I have horses and cats.

    I have horses, and I like cats.

    Left out, the lack of comma sounds like I have horses and I…. which stops the reader from making sense until she finishes the sentence and can rethink the meaning

    The comma is not needed before a subordinate conjunction (because, if ..) because the word is sufficient signal to the reader. There is little opportunity for it to be ambiguous. Beginning the sentence with the conjunction, however, requires that a comma separage the clauses. Otherwise, again, the reader might have to read well into the second clause before realizing she is not making sense of it.

    Because I like to drive a car is an important asset.

    Because I like to drive, a car is an important asset.

    The reader can easily assume the first clause is “I like to drive a car” which is not the intent. A comma makes this easy.

    • March 7, 2011 11:01 pm

      Enlightening! And well explained.

      A car is an imporant asset because I like to drive.
      (natural order for subordinate conjuction, no comma)
      but
      Because I like to drive, a care is an important asset.
      (subordinate conjunction first, needs comma)

      and

      I like cars, and I love to drive.
      (coordinate conjunction, use comma to cue reader that each half is separate statement)
      but
      I like cars if I am allowed to drive.
      (subordinate conjunction, no risk of confusion)

    • March 17, 2011 9:03 pm

      Preston wrote, “Left out, the lack of comma sounds like I have horses and I….”

      Well, not in that example, as you wrote “and I” rather than “and myself”. But yes, I agree with you in general.

      Jane saw Tom and George…

      … period? Or “saw”? Half the readers will likely guess wrong.

      Also: long live the Oxford comma, though I believe it’s usually used in American journalism but omitted in English (British) journalism. So I’ve heard, anyway.

      • March 17, 2011 9:37 pm

        Ohh, the “Oxford Comma”! I looked it up at http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/page/oxfordcomma. So the serial comma was an oxford thing. Bizzare if it is now current with Americans but not Brits!

        Confess I didn’t get the Tom and George issue. Can you explain a bit more?

        Jane saw Tom and George.

        To me, this means Jane saw two people: Tom and George.

        Jane saw Tom and George saw Jane.

        In this case “and” is a pure conjunction joining two complete sentencers.

        Jane saw Tom, and George.

        I am not sure what this would mean.

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