And Commas We All Abuse

Part two of our comma post could just as easily be called commas that abuse us all, for these are the grammatical “rules” that attempt to fix into writing something that, if it exists in language, is marked by its absence. The spoken comma is delineated by the finest intake of breath, a barely existent non-existence.

Hence the writer’s struggle. Few of us experience such angst over subject-verb agreement, the finer rules of ordering cumulative adjectives, or the intricacies of definite and indefinite articles. Evidence suggests that these linguistic patterns are buried deeply in the neurons and synapses of our brains, carried along pathways that are already well worn by the time we enter into adolescence.

But the comma? This little mark is a written, not a spoken, convention. And grateful as I am for the standardization that makes our language comprehensible across distances of place and time, the bohemian in me rebels at such niceties.

Still, just when I am tempted to throw out the rulebook and use my commas as I please, I come across a sentence such as this:

Although, in all of these instances, we were able to find solutions that made sense, we do object to the committee’s charge that we had, in the first place, overcharged for our services, and, in the second, substantially, underperformed.

If you now feel that you have been run roughshod through a parking lot filled with speed bumps, that your poor reading brain has been jolted out of all sense, and that you may require a realignment, let’s have a look at the commas that are grammatically required, the third column in our chart.

Style – Choose based on your personal preference; just be consistent.

Usage – Choose based on context, and follow the guidance of your publisher.

Grammar – Memorize these rules.

a) comma choice: introductory phrase

d) comma use: serial comma

f) comma rule: no comma   between subject and verb or verb and object

b) comma choice: emphasis

e) comma use: essential and non-essential elements

g) comma rule: comma to   separate independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunction

c) comma choice: avoid   confusion

h) comma rule: comma to   separate coordinate adjectives; no comma to separate cumulative adjectives

i) comma rule: interjectory or parenthetical words and phrases and attributive tags

Adapted from Venn diagram – Where does grammar end and style begin?

 

X f1) Registering for our fitness programs before September 15, will save you thirty percent of the membership cost.

It’s tempting to place a comma after the date. Many style guides suggest we should do so. But in this sentence, the comma separates the subject registering from the verb will, and that’s a no-no.

Quick fix: Turn the introductory phrase into an introductory clause (Remember: phrases are a group of words, clauses are a group of words with a subject and a verb.)

f1, corrected) If you register for our fitness program before September 15, you can save thirty percent of the membership cost.

X f2) The point is, we should never put the cart before the horse.

The writer wishes to emphasize the point, and readers probably appreciate that, but the comma interrupts the basic syntactic unit of subject (point) – verb (is) – object (we etc.,). It disrupts that neural pathway we mentioned earlier. To create emphasis AND keep the sentence intact, complete your thought, like so:

f2, corrected) The point is this: never put the cart before the horse.

Create a complete sentence, subject – verb – object, and then highlight the point you wish to emphasize afterwards.

X g1) We recognize that open government is a process rather than a product, and have taken a continuous-learning approach.

The word and is a coordinating conjunction (but you knew that didn’t you?). Coordinating conjunctions take commas when they separate two independent clauses. Also known as simple sentences when appearing alone, independent clauses have a subject and a verb (and sometimes an object; together with the verb, that’s called a predicate, or “a complete thought.”)

Quick test: Can all the stuff after the word and stand alone? No? No comma!

This rule also applies to all of and’s FANBOYS: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, and So. They’re all coordinating conjunctions. And they’re all punctuated the same.

Why should you care? Because of this example:

X g2) The content on this site is written by NASA employees, and contractors across the agency.

You know that feeling when you’re walking down a set of stairs, and you think there’s another step, so you hit your foot really hard when you reach the bottom, and it kind of crashes your jaw up into your skull and gives you a raging headache for the rest of the day and makes you feel like a jerk in front of all of your friends, and you want to go hide in the bathroom, except now you have to go lead a PowerPoint presentation in front of everybody? Yep. That’s what that comma this just did.

Don’t put a comma there unless you have a complete sentence.

g2, corrected) The content on this site is written both by NASA employees and by contractors across the agency.

OR

g2, corrected) The content on this site is written by NASA employees, and contractors across the agency contributed as well.

Notice that small transitional words, mostly prepositions, help to support the commas, so that the punctuation mark isn’t forced to carry the entire weight of the sentence. Yes, it’s wordy, but not intrusively so, and if it helps your reader then the extra words are worth it.

h1) The dark red dress was her favorite.

The word dark is not describing the dress directly; it’s describing the kind of red that the dress is– it’s not light red, or brick red, or rose red; it’s dark red. The two adjectives build on one another, and that’s why we call them cumulative. Compare:

h2) Did you read about Macomber’s short, happy life?

These adjectives are coordinated. You can put them in either order, and you can put the word and between them. They require a comma.

i1) He walked into the room and, bam, the vase just fell to the floor.

Bam is an interjection. It inserts itself into the sentence with a force that deserves some setting off. The writer may choose to use dashes or even an exclamation point to do so. Interjections are rarely used in government, scientific, academic, or business writing.

i2) We believe, therefore, that this provision is necessary.

The word therefore is a parenthetical aside, an intrusion into the sentence. It has the same effect as a non-restrictive element (see rule e).

NOTE: however, therefore, indeed, moreover, nonetheless, etc., are conjunctive adverbs. They act as parenthetical asides when placed at the beginning of a sentence or in the middle of the thought. When separating two independent clauses (see g1 and g2), they require a semicolon before and a comma after, like so:

We believe this provision is necessary; therefore, we request the committee pass it.

i3) “Let’s all stop this nonsense and indulge in an ice cream cone,” he enjoined us.

Attributive tags are he said – she said and all other words or phrases of that ilk. The sentence proper consists of the subject and verb, indicating who spoke and that they did so. The direct quotation acts as the predicate, usually the direct object of said.

NOTE: if the quote is acting as the indirect object of the verb with a to or that implied, as in the above, use the comma and the quotation marks. If the to or that is stated, omit the comma and the quotation marks, like so:

He enjoined us to stop all this nonsense and indulge in an ice cream cone.

What delicious advice! Ice cream cones all around. I hope you’ve enjoyed these two posts –that you’ve found them instructive and not too terribly dull. Please leave your thoughts, comments, examples, and corrections – Remember, we’re here to learn from one another, not to pretend as though we have all the answers.

Some examples previously published in posts on Grammar Glitch Central. See Corporate Writing Pro on Commas with Adjectives and The Trickiest Punctuation Mark, Part I. Other examples taken from NASA.gov, modified for instructional purposes.

Comments

  1. Writing Pro:
    I have always believed, and I teach in my classes, that in most cases rules exist to define the exeptions. I teach that if a writer can hear a comma, then use the comma; otherwise, don’t.

    • Hello Jeffrey – sound advice that I used to take myself and teach likewise. However, I work now with writers in more formal writing situations – i.e., government writers, science writers, academics, etc., In these contexts, the rules are needful. The concepts these writers convey are complex, and they need and deserve every tool that language offers, including punctuation, to make them more clear and accessible to a willing reader.

      I also work with writers who were not born into the profession but forced into it. Many of them do not *hear* the rhythm of language, just like I don’t *see* the difference between two cell types, even when I’m looking at them carefully under a microscope. In those circumstances, too, rules can help.

What do you think?