Let’s Talk Grammar for a While
(Grammar Post Number Three)
The Too Common Comma
Let’s continue discussing grammar, in particular punctuation, and have a look at the too common comma. What can we say nice about this little squiggly line that seems to get in the way of our good writing more than we care to admit?
In all my editing jobs, I’ve seen the comma misused and abused more than any other punctuation mark. Maybe it’s because it’s so easy to type or write; it just kind of slides onto the paper without anyone noticing. But I think it’s time we look at a few rules that will spruce up your writing and help your readers actually get a grip on what you’re trying to say!
The cardinal rule for using commas is when in doubt, don’t use them. But if you want to, or you HAVE to use them, (and you do), then let’s use them correctly. Here are a few pointers that seem to trip up everyone:
- When you have two compound sentences, use a comma to separate them. Now remember that a compound sentence (two independent clauses) has two subjects and two verbs:
Example: Bruce bought a brand new red car, but his brother Ed bought a use blue truck.
Example: Sally baked a cake for Tom’s birthday, and she bought him a new watch.
Example: (Exception: If the compound sentence is real short, there’s NO COMMA) Harry played but Bill slept.
- Do NOT use a comma in a simple sentence with a compound verb. This is the most frequent misuse of a comma. I see this again and again in the manuscripts that I edit and critique:
Example: Sally baked a cake for Tom’s birthday and bought him a new watch.
NOTE: There is no comma after birthday because there is only one subject in this sentence: Sally. The compound verbs are “baked” and “bought.”
- Use a comma before the word “and” in a series. Now this can be confusing because grammar rules seem to change frequently. A few years back the rule was that you shouldn’t use a comma before the word “and” in a series; but over the last year or so, the grammar gods decided to change it. Who does the changing and why? I don’t have a clue:
Example: Tyler washed the dog, cut the grass, changed the oil in his car, and went to the store on Saturday.
Example: Bill invited Sue, Ellen, Marcy, Joe, and Kim to the grand opening.
- Use a comma after the year in a date only if the month and day are mentioned first:
Example: On December 25, 2011, we celebrated the birth of Christ.
Example: (NO COMMA) In December of 2011 we celebrated the birth of Christ.
- Use a comma after an introductory phrase or dependent clause that introduces a main clause:
Example: After Claude started his new job, he fell and broke his leg.
Example: If Charlie doesn’t soon get a haircut, he’ll look like a lion.
Example: (Exception: NO COMMA in a short introductory phrase) In winter the snow falls frequently in the northeast.
- Although there are several more comma rules that we don’t have the time or space to consider, we’ll discuss one more use that is frequently misused. (Dig out your Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White’s Manual of Style for more uses and misuses.)
Use a comma in a nonrestrictive clause (not needed clause), in particular, with names and titles:
Example: My husband, Richard, was a marine.
(The commas set off the name “Richard,” indicating that my husband and Richard are one and the same; therefore, “Richard” could be deleted, and the sentence would still be accurate and correct grammatically.) My husband was a Marine.
Example: (NO COMMA in a restrictive clause: a word or phrase that is necessary)
My dog Bailey is a little tornado and loves to run. (I have two dogs, so I don’t use commas before and after Bailey. If I would use commas here, you could delete the word “Bailey;” but then you wouldn’t know to which dog I’m referring.)
Now that you are totally confused about the use of commas, would you like a cup of egg nog? How about some cookies? How about a brand new Chicago Manual of Style that might confuse you more? Maybe you should start on your Christmas wish list already. ☺
Next time, we’ll discuss “em” dashes and “en” dashes.
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