10 Comma Cases in Which More Is More

By Mark Nichol

The movement toward open punctuation — the omission of commas in cases in which they are deemed optional — has its merits, but writers and editors should take care to retain commas — or even insert additional ones — to clarify meaning:

1. “He points to the benefits and wonders how schools can justify not investing in tools for disabled students.”
Because wonders can be a noun as well as a verb, and because a pairing of the noun form with benefits initially makes sense, it might be misread here as such. To avoid this misunderstanding, insert a comma after benefits to give the reader pause and signal a new thought: “He points to the benefits, and wonders how schools can justify not investing in tools for disabled students.” Alternatively, alter the introductory phrase and make the following phrase an independent clause: “Pointing to the benefits, he wonders how schools can justify not investing in tools for disabled students.”

2. “The dog should be content to bark at passing trains and slumber.”
The sentence incorrectly implies that the dog barks at two things: passing trains and slumber. But bark at refers only to trains, not to slumber. How about reordering the sentence to place slumber first? (“The dog should be content to slumber and bark at passing trains.”) Now he’s slumbering at passing trains, then barking at them. Either introduce a comma or insert a parallel-signaling to, or both: “The dog should be content to bark at passing trains, and to slumber.”

3. “Couch or calisthenics? A majority of California students are opting for a couch based on the results of the state’s annual physical fitness test.”
As the second sentence is structured, the couch appears to be based on the fitness test results. Insert a comma after couch to clarify the structure (and in the initial sentence, follow couch with a comma there, too, for the same reason): “Couch, or calisthenics? A majority of California students are opting for a couch, based on the results of the state’s annual physical fitness test.” Better yet, invert the syntax in the second sentence: “Couch, or calisthenics? Based on the results of the state’s annual physical fitness test, a majority of California students are opting for a couch.”

4. “The world contains too many bored fourteen-year-old boys and ex-boyfriends bearing grudges.”
This reference to a particular woman’s two greatest classes of nemeses is taken out of context, but it still should be clear that only those in the latter category bear grudges. Therefore, a comma should separate the two categories: “The world contains too many bored fourteen-year-old boys, and ex-boyfriends bearing grudges.” Or, if the context allows, reverse the order and strengthen the parallel structure: “The world contains too many ex-boyfriends bearing grudges, and too many bored fourteen-year-old boys.”

5. “Halle Berry is the first African American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball.”
As punctuated, this sentence implies that more than one African American actress was in contention for an Academy Award for Berry’s performance. To set the record straight, set the qualification off with a comma: “Halle Berry is the first African American woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, for her performance in Monster’s Ball.” Here’s a smoother revision: “Halle Berry, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball, is the first African-American woman to take home the award.”

6. “The prison plays an important role during the film’s third act, in which our hero is arrested thanks to the villain’s devious machinations.”
The tag phrase “thanks to the villain’s devious machinations” should be set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Better yet, insert that parenthetical phrase into the middle of the sentence so that the result of the plotting dramatically punctuates the sentence: “The prison plays an important role, during which, thanks to the villain’s devious machinations, our hero is arrested.”

7. “Americans divide Russians into authoritarians and democrats with no regard for native context.”
The sentence mistakenly implies that the two categories in question are “authoritarians” and “democrats with no regard for native context. The writer meant, “With no regard for native context, Americans divide Russians into authoritarians and democrats.” (Or start that sentence with Americans, followed by a comma.) Those revisions are more elegant than the simplest solution, employed above in other examples: “Americans divide Russians into authoritarians and democrats, with no regard for native context.”

8. “Another astronomer named Edwin Hubble cast his eye on the pulsing light of distant variable stars called Cepheids.”
The initial phrase of this sentence implies the previous mention of another astronomer by that name. Solve this error by setting the name apart as an appositive, with framing commas (and delete the extraneous named): “Another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, cast his eye on the pulsing light of distant variable stars called Cepheids.”

9. “High school students who carry a poor or no understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.”
“Or no” is a parenthetical phrase in which no parallels poor as an option, and it could be omitted with no structural damage to the sentence, so it should be enclosed by a pair of commas: “High school students who carry a poor, or no, understanding of evolution into college are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.”

Alternatively, the sentence could be relaxed and given more impact with a revision such as “High school students who carry into college a poor understanding — or, worse, no understanding at all — of evolution are less likely to pick careers in the biological and geological sciences.” (Note the relocation of the flexible modifying phrase “into college” to smooth out the syntax.)

10. “Hindu believers are governed by the three doctrines of dharma or universal law, karma or the cumulative effects of personal actions, and samsara or the cycle of rebirth.”
Always set terms off from their glosses, or brief definitions (See? I just glossed gloss), by a set of parenthetical commas; both in this explanation and in the sample sentence, the sentence structure requires a semicolon in place of the closing comma: “Hindu believers are governed by the three doctrines of dharma, or universal law; karma, or the cumulative effects of personal actions; and samsara, or the cycle of rebirth.” (A simple gloss would look like this: “Dharma, or universal law, is integral to both Hinduism and Buddhism.”)

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27 Responses to “10 Comma Cases in Which More Is More”

  • sefcug

    On the subject of commas, does the comma go before or after “but” and “because”?

  • Laura S.

    These are great! I should send them along with each edited piece for my authors to read. 🙂

    For #4, there is another way to fix the confusion and to strengthen the parallel: “The world contains too many bored fourteen-year-old boys and too many grudge-bearing ex-boyfriends.”

  • Peter

    sefcug: if there’s got be a comma there at all, before.

  • Rebecca

    Great tips! Sometimes writers overuse the comma. Thank goodness for “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” It’s a great book that every writer could have.

  • richard pook

    As someone just getting their writing hat back on after all these years, this post and this blog is proving very enjoyable reading.

  • Kathryn

    Good examples of what happens when you underuse the comma–and how to fix them (but I think the phrase “in the film’s third act” got left out of the rewrite in #6).

    One quibble–#3 is still misleading even as rewritten, because of the use of “based.” The writer very likely meant to say that the results of the annual physical fitness text suggest that students are opting for the couch. However, what the sentence actually says is that students base their decision to choose lethargy on the results of the fitness test.

  • Rochelle

    I want to quibble with the lack of “the film’s third act,” in #6, too. I also noticed a missing end quotation in #7: “Democrats with no regard for native context. The writer meant…

    Great examples overall, and a useful post. Thanks!

  • Precise Edit

    I’m a fan of using “optional” commas when they improve the potential for reader understanding and help prevent misunderstanding.

    Here’s a “koan” from Zen Comma that addresses this issue.

    Koan 9
    Bumbo approached his teacher with a concerned look on his face.
    “Teacher,” he said, “some commas seem optional. How do I know whether or not to use them?”
    In response, the teacher asked him, “Two bridges cross the river. One bridge is missing steps, and the other is whole. Which do you use?”

    And, in case this is a bit too abstract, here’s the explanation.

    Imagine a pedestrian bridge crossing a river, the kind with individual boards going across its width. If some of the boards are missing, and if you are not careful about where you walk, you might fall through the bridge. You can cross, but it’s risky. On the other hand, a bridge with all the steps will be safe. This is like a sentence with commas. Some commas are required, and some seem optional. However, if some of the commas are missing, the reader might get confused. The teacher wants Bumbo to choose the option that has the greatest chance of helping the reader understand the sentence. This means Bumbo needs to put in all the commas, even the optional ones.

  • Kathryn

    sefcug: Peter is right about the comma before but or because. . .in MOST cases. Just don’t apply it as a rote rule without paying attention to what you are actually doing with the sentence–there are few (if any) reliable rote rules in grammar. For examples:

    I have always thought peonies difficult to grow but, if my market gardener is to be believed, they are actually among the simplest of flowers for the home gardener.

    I will not go downtown tomorrow because, whatever anyone may say, doorbuster sale days are too hectic.

  • Nann

    Kathryn: I learned it this way:

    I have always thought peonies difficult to grow, but if my market gardener is to be believed, they are actually among the simplest of flowers for the home gardener.

    I will not go downtown tomorrow, because whatever anyone may say, doorbuster sale days are too hectic.

    The thinking is, if the clause after the inserted phrase/clause is independent, the comma should precede the conjunction. If the clause after the inserted phrase/clause is dependent, the comma should follow the conjunction.

  • Peter

    The commas in those cases set off a parenthetical clause. Try chopping it (and the commas) out, and see what you’re left with:

    Kathryn’s version: “I have always thought peonies difficult to grow but they are actually among the simplest of flowers for the home gardener.”

    Nann’s version: “I have always thought peonies difficult to grow they are actually among the simplest of flowers for the home gardener.”

    Second version bad English; double-plus ungood.

  • Kathryn

    Thanks, Peter, for actually explaining with the correct name of the grammatical form and all like that. I was having a mild brain-fog and could not for the life of me remember “parenthetical clause” or (for that matter) “dependent and independent clause.” Anna’s rule is, of course, the basis for your original advice to sefcug–and trying to apply it to my sentences illustrates the danger. One could, of course, rearrange the sentences to include the content of the parentheticals in another way, but there is no reason to rob ourselves of a valuable usage simply to make a rule more reliable.

  • Nann

    Peter: Not to argue, but just to discuss, I looked up an instance that seems to agree with what I was taught. Here’s a quoted section from the Capital Community College Foundation in Hartford, Conn. (http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm#below):

    “When a parenthetical element — an interjection, adverbial modifier, or even an adverbial clause — follows a coordinating conjunction used to connect two independent clauses, we do not put a comma in front of the parenthetical element.

    The Red Sox were leading the league at the end of May, but of course, they always do well in the spring. [no comma after “but”]
    The Yankees didn’t do so well in the early going, but frankly, everyone expects them to win the season. [no comma after “but”]
    The Tigers spent much of the season at the bottom of the league, and even though they picked up several promising rookies, they expect to be there again next year. [no comma after “and”]”

    Removal of the commas and the clause leaves the same situation as you arrived at with my suggestion above: two independent clauses with what looks like inappropriate punctuation. But if one assumes that the two clauses can be read as two sentences, the CCCF treatment makes sense to me.

    The “rule” must have come from somewhere. I couldn’t (yet) find any other spot online that even addresses the issue.

    There must be others; I didn’t learn it from CCCF. But it’s been a long time since I learned it, and I don’t remember the source.

  • Nann

    Aha! This is probably where I learned it:

    William Strunk’s Rules of Usage states:

    If a dependent clause, or an introductory phrase requiring to be set off by a comma, precedes the second independent clause, no comma is needed after the conjunction.

    Strunk’s example illustrates the point:

    The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

  • Peter

    The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

    Hmm…doesn’t look right, to me; either of the following are good, though:

    The situation is perilous but, if we are prepared to act promptly, there is still one chance of escape.

    The situation is perilous, but if we are prepared to act promptly there is still one chance of escape.

  • Nann

    Peter: I understand your reasoning, and I agree your opinion seems more logical, but it’s difficult to argue with William Strunk. So many “rules” of writing are subject to interpretation anymore…

    I’ve been a freelance editor for years for several small publishing houses, and if I changed my methods now, I’m afraid I’d create a credibility problem. At least, being able to point to Strunk as a source lends some strength to choosing his way.

    Thank you for the discussion!

  • Shankar Haritsa

    ‘Now he’s slumbering at passing trains, then barking at them’- How this is possible????

  • Kathryn

    Nann–yes, I suspect this may be a case of slowly morphing rules. After reading your first response to Peter I did what I might well have done in the first place and went and reread both “Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition” (Fowler/Gower) and “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” and the AP Stylebook–as well, of course, as Strunk & White (I don’t have access to Mr. Strunk’s original text). Interestingly, only Messrs. Strunk & White directly address the specific question of how to punctuate a parenthetical phrase following a conjunction between two independent clauses–as you noted above. The AP Stylebook is altogether silent on the issue–it tells us that “non-essential clauses/phrases” (which would include the parentheticals in all the examples we have used) MUST be set off by commas, but doesn’t even address the use of a comma between two independent clauses (referring us, instead, to “Webster’s New World College Dictionary”–sigh. ANOTHER reference book to buy!).

    Fowler/Gower, who do not offer rules for correct comma usage–contenting themselves with commenting on egregious errors–in commenting on the use of commas in the absolute construction, give the following as a correctly punctuated sentence: “But these objections were overruled, and, the accused having pleaded not guilty, the hearing of evidence commenced.” Thus opting for two commas where you, Peter and I all agree only one is needed.

    Garner starts his comments on commas with the observation that during much of the 20th century there was movement from a closed style of comma use to a more open style. . .to the point even of omitting commas that would aid clarity. He then identifies nine places where the comma should be used, including its use to mark the beginning and end of parentheticals, and its use between coordinated main clauses (by which he means independent clauses joined by a conjunction)–in which case, he puts it before the conjunction, as do we all.

    I’m not in any way disagreeing with you–and indeed, would have to say that not changing horses in the middle of the stream makes excellent sense. It looks like we simply adhere to different stylistic trends, which is pretty much inevitable given the natural evolution of grammar and usage.

  • Kathryn

    Shankar Haritsa: You’re right, it isn’t possible to slumber AT passing trains. Mark was using humor to show what’s wrong with trying to fix the original sentence (The dog should be content to bark at passing trains and slumber) by switching the positions of the verb “slumber” and the verb phrase “bark at passing trains” without using any commas.

  • Nann

    Kathryn says: It looks like we simply adhere to different stylistic trends, which is pretty much inevitable given the natural evolution of grammar and usage.

    Thank you, Kathryn, for your in-depth attention to this matter. You’ve given me a useful and cogent expression. When my editor friends and I disagree, I can avoid any long arguments by saying we adhere to different stylistic trends and let it go at that.

  • Kathryn

    Nann: Sigh. I’m trying to decide if that was meant sincerely, or as snark. I’m going to go with sincere, because I am not a conflict junkie. Um. As you admire Strunk–a Cornell professor–I am wondering if you are familiar with the work of Morris Bishop, also a Cornell professor (albeit from a different era)? He wrote light verse (including what I think of as a classic of grammar verse, “The Naughty Preposition”); one of his poems I have always treasured, “Dear Reader” (epigraph to his collection /A Bowl of Bishop/) concerns “an advertising man named Edward K. McPherson”. . .

    “Esthetic problems he’d resolve in words I’ve not forgotten.
    ‘It’s all a question of taste,’ he’d say, ‘and your taste is rotten.'”

    I’m afraid that using the “we adhere to different stylistic trends” with most professionals in the field is likely–unless backed up with chapter and verse on the differing trends–to garner roughly the same response as Mr. McPherson likely reaped.

  • Kathryn

    Drat. I got so absorbed with digging out books to quote from that I forgot my original reason for revisiting this thread. Which was to note that Lynne Truss, in /Eats, Shoots & Leaves/, endorses the position of Professor Strunk, that where the “comma before coordinating conjuction joining clauses of compound sentence” and “commas to set off a clause or phrase that disrupts the main clause” rules of punctuation conflict, the former triumphs, and the latter must depart from the field.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    I’m not keen on a comma as the proposed solution to #4, as it breaks up the compound object and may make the reader stumble (getting them ready for another clause that never comes). As mentioned above, the best approach to many conundrums of this type is to rewrite (rather than just adding or removing commas).
    e.g.: “The world contains too many grudge-toting ex-boyfriends and bored fourteen-year-old boys.” It should be clear that the bored fourteen year-olds are not also grudge-toting.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    And for #6:“The prison plays an important role during the film’s third act, in which the villain’s devious machinations lead to our hero’s arrest.”

  • Oliver Lawrence

    For #10, the semi-colons don’t work unless introduced by a colon, as otherwise it is not clear to the reader that what we are dealing with is a list: “Hindu believers are governed by three doctrines: dharma, or universal law; karma, or the cumulative effects of personal actions; and samsara, or the cycle of rebirth.”

  • Sean Lewis

    Just to vent, as long as we’re on the topic of commas: The ever-increasing “open punctuation” trend I see these days, as the intro to this page describes, drives me nuts — especially for short (what I believe are called) prepositional phrases such as “Later that day all the boys went back to the gym.” You so often now see it written that way, when clearly, a comma after “day” would certainly help to clarify for the reader that the boys went to the gym later that day, and that there is no modifying purpose for the phrase “later that day” over the word “all” — if that makes any sense. (I used to know all these grammatic terms!)

  • Jerry

    Sentence #3 could be incorrectly interpreted as, “The students are making their choice ‘because of’ the results of the study.”

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