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How To Deal With the Common Comma

The friendly comma lays traps of ambiguity and hilarious confusion for the unwary, explains Donyale Harrison.

How To Deal With the Common Comma

Ann Patchett is a very good writer, as evidenced by her note to the New York Times in October 2014:

“To the Editor:

I was grateful to see my book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage mentioned… When highlighting a few of the essays in the collection, the review mentions topics ranging from “her stabilising second marriage to her beloved dog” without benefit of comma, thus giving the impression that Sparky and I are hitched. While my love for my dog is deep, he married a dog named Maggie at Parnassus Books last summer as part of a successful fund-raiser for the Nashville Humane Association. I am married to Karl VanDevender. We are all very happy in our respective unions.”

The presence, or absence, of a comma can make or break a sentence. Here, the NYT reviewer forgot he was making a list. If it had been “from her stabilising second marriage, to her beloved dog, to her passion for books” then the commas would in all likelihood have made the newspaper. But because there are only two items, it all went hilariously wrong.

This is just one area in which commas can lead us astray. Let’s take a quick look at the type called the serial comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma). It’s the comma that is often put before the word “and” in a list, and it has its lovers and its haters. There are people whose passion for the serial comma rivals that of Romeo for Juliet, and there are others who feel that writing “She was shopping for onions, bread, spinach, and juice” is the sure sign of a deranged mind.

The truth is somewhere in between. Most of the time there’s no real need for a serial comma, but it does have its moments. Grammarly, a website dedicated to all things language, gives a brilliant example of a sentence from Sky News – “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set…” One little comma would have kept both presidents from alleged bigamy.

The problem is that we’re all so familiar with the comma that it becomes a handy grammatical fallback. It has one of the longest histories in punctuation, starting life looking like a / and called a “virgule”. It was inserted by medieval monks whenever they felt a speaker should pause in reading from a manuscript. In the late 1400s, an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius lowered the line in relation to the words around it and curved it, creating the comma as we know it (he also invented the semicolon, italic type and a font called Bembo, which is still used today. Serious over-achiever.)

Its role as a mark to show readers where to draw breath survives in our habit of using a comma wherever we want a pause. But this can cause problems. Often we accidentally chop necessary bits off from the main body of sentences: “The dog we found, is the one my friend lost.” Each part of this sentence needs the other – the parts don’t make sense on their own – so there should be no comma in between.

The reason some people would put that comma in is that it sounds as though the first part of the sentence is introductory, and it’s right to have a comma after an introductory clause: “A renowned cardsharp, Ian was not to be trusted when it came to friendly poker games.” But this is only OK if the words or words aren’t vital to the rest of the sentence. “So, I think I like the blue best” needs a comma, because “so” is being used as a filler word and could be dropped. But “The bats had moved away months earlier. So the birds were to blame after all” is different. “So” here means “as you can see from the argument I’ve just presented” and is necessary.

A good rule is to read the sentence without the words separated out by a comma. Does it still make sense and have the same basic meaning? Excellent! Comma stays! No? Remove it. Be fierce in checking that the meaning remains the same: “I went shopping with my friend, Claire” means that I only have one friend, and her name is Claire. Take out the comma and I have several, including Claire.

Two small pitfalls remain. The first is that if you use one comma to mark off an extra bit in the middle of a sentence, you need to use another to mark the end of the extra bit. “The keyboard, which was only a year old, bore the stains of many a desk lunch.”

The second is that it usually doesn’t work well when commas are used to link complete sentences. Called a “comma splice”, it creates sentences like: “The Middle Ages were frequently violent, life expectancies were lower than today.” Read it out loud and you’ll hear that you naturally stop at the end of the first section and pause – start a new sentence – before the second. For writers who don’t like the choppy sound of two short related sentences, add a linking word like “and” or “but” after the comma, or use a semicolon or dash instead of a comma.

As long as your sentences still make sense and mean what you mean them to, you’re probably doing well in the comma department. Try not to get too caught up. E.B. White, famous writer and style guru, once wrote that “Commas in The New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.” In an ideal world, I’d suggest clinical punctuation, not forensic.

COMMA GET IT

You need commas to:

  • Separate the items in a list. Usually you don’t require one before the “and”.
  • Separate an introductory or afterthought clause: “And so they lived happily ever after, if we ignore the arguments over housework.”
  • Separate non-essential parts of a sentence: “A local resident, Lee Chang, said that the river often flooded.”
  • Link short related sentences with an “and” or “but”: “Life was brutal there, but it was better than the alternative.”



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