3 Common Comma Errors

By Mark Nichol

The following sample sentences and the discussion that follows each point out three frequently found punctuation errors in which a comma is extraneously inserted or erroneously omitted.

1. “The giant, blue eyeball that washed up on a Florida beach likely came from a swordfish.”
The adjectives giant and blue are noncoordinate, which means they’re not parallel in function. You can say, of course, that an eyeball is giant and that it is blue, but the second test of adjectival coordination, whether the words can gracefully be transposed, does not work; “the blue giant eyeball” is awkward. Why?

A convention in English called the royal order of adjectives assigns specific starting positions to different types of descriptive words, and size precedes color. Therefore, “blue eyeball” becomes a temporary compound modified by giant, and therefore no intervening punctuation is required: “The giant blue eyeball that washed up on a Florida beach likely came from a swordfish.”

2. “Move over vampires, goblins and haunted houses, this kind of Halloween terror aims to shake up even the toughest warriors.”
The introductory phrase in this sentence, a form of address to the subject that is increasingly common in lead paragraphs in journalistic contexts (to the point of becoming a tired cliché), is just that — an introductory phrase. And though short introductory phrases are often inserted at the beginning of a sentence without following punctuation, in this case, “Move over vampires” is a miscue that readers might read to mean “proceed on top of bloodsucking beings.”

I prefer consistency over inconsistency and recommend always punctuating introductory phrases; whether you follow that advice or not, do it here: “Move over, vampires, goblins, and haunted houses, this kind of Halloween terror aims to shake up even the toughest warriors.”

3. “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday because of the threat of the tropical storm Isaac now bearing down on Florida.”
There are at least two effective solutions to the problem here, which is that “angry tropical storm” and Isaac are appositives, which means that one noun or noun phrase refers to the other. As written, without punctuation, the sentence implies that more than one angry tropical storm bearing down on Florida exists at this time, and one is called Isaac.

But because only one storm, named Isaac (“one storm” and “named Isaac” are in apposition), is bearing down on Florida, the interchangeable noun and noun phrase are set off with an appositive comma: “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday because of the threat of Isaac, the tropical storm now bearing down on Florida.”

Another option is to refer to Isaac with the modifying phrase “tropical storm” and follow the wording with a descriptive phrase, set off by a comma, that serves an appositive function: “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday because of the threat of the tropical storm Isaac, now bearing down on Florida.”

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13 Responses to “3 Common Comma Errors”

  • Stephen

    I think number 3 is strange. The bold sample sentence doesn’t include any of the three phrases in inverted commas that you seem to suggest it does: “angry tropical storm”, “one storm” or “named Isaac”.

    Other than a single comma, it’s the same as your second option for correcting the sentence.

  • Melissa

    Another common comma error is using a comma where stronger punctuation is needed. Number 2 includes just such a “comma splice”: there should be a semicolon, period, or possibly even a colon–but not just a comma–after “haunted houses.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Yes, example number 2 includes a comma splice. How did you overlook that? Another way to repair that problem includes using a dash after “haunted houses”.

    I agree that this kind of a long introductory phrase has become a tired cliche in English. These should be avoided, and these sometimes remind me of the “extended adjecteval phrases” that exist at the beginning of sentences in German literature. Those are long lists of adjectives and preposititional phrases, too. They are very confusing if you don’t know what to look for, and they are not used in conversational German.

    We don’t need something like those in English!!

  • Dale A. Wood

    I think that in the example sentence number two, the word “angry” was omitted. Then “angry” was referred to in the exposition on the sentence anyway, and that was quite confusing.

    Furthermore, the original sentence could have been expressed quite clearly by omitting both “the” and “angry”, yielding this:

    “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac now bearing down on Florida.”

    Note that “Tropical Storm Isaac” is now a proper noun, and literate and aware people understand what that means.
    The adjective “angry” was completely unnecessary.

    Something like “Hurricane Donna” is also a proper noun.

    D.A.W.

  • Lisa Jey Davis

    Again – I question this in #2. Why so *many* commas? You offered:

    “Move over, vampires, goblins, and haunted houses, this kind of Halloween terror aims to shake up even the toughest warriors.”

    But “vampire, goblins and haunted houses” also qualifies as a list, and there is no need to insert a comma before “and” in a list. *OVER USE*

    Just my own take, as I was corrected in Catholic School many times for this very thing!

  • Mark Nichol

    I agree with the criticisms detailed above.

    Sometimes I’m not as careful about editing flawed sentences I’ve discovered in my reading, as opposed to those I’ve edited as part of an assignment; occasionally, I focus on the error I’m illustrating at the expense of others. That is evident in item number 2, and I agree that the comma after houses should be replaced by a semicolon or, better, an em dash.

    And, yes, I mistakenly retained the pathetic fallacy angry, which was in the source material, in one reference after deleting it from the sample sentence; in addition, “tropical storm,” like hurricane, should be initially capitalized when it is part of the weather event’s name.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lisa:

    Insertion or omission of the serial comma is a matter of personal preference, but it is also a matter of style. The source material for this sample sentence, a newspaper article, did not include it, because newspaper punctuation style conforms with your Catholic school’s.

    But many other types of publications (and some newspapers) employ the serial comma, it is required in most of the projects I am assigned as an editor, and it is my preference. (See the first item in this post.)

  • Claude Nougat

    Wow! After reading the post I had thought I’d finally understood something more about comma use and now, after reading the comments, I’m just as confused as before.

    Amazing how complex the English language can be (is?)…

  • Jarvis Edwards

    I suppose these examples are more consistent with formal writing, such as AP style? For instance, in professional copywriting, the typical rules to comma usage don’t necessarily apply. I agree with the post above; comma use is pretty confusing…to say the least!

  • Eilidh

    Regarding point 3: I’m never sure when to use a comma before “because” and when not to. I’ve read various explanations, but am still confused.

    Would it be accurate as a rule of thumb to omit a comma when the word “only” can be inserted in front of “because” without changing the meaning? In your example the change would read:

    The convention will be delayed until Tuesday [only] because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac now bearing down on Florida.

    If the sentence is still true with “only” inserted, then no comma before “because.” Does this work as a rule of thumb?

  • Ron

    Mark,

    Thanks for a great article. Not only did I learn about the three common comma errors, I also learned about the royal order of adjectives. This is great stuff.

    If I keep reading your articles. I think I can get a PhD in English in about 10 years. You keep writing fresh new content and find a unique way of bring us around to your other writings.

    Thanks,

    Ron

  • Mark Nichol

    Ron:

    Thanks for your note! We appreciate your comments.

  • Mark Nichol

    Eilidh:

    Another Daily Writing Tips reader provided this citation from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style:

    because after negated verbs: When because follows a negated verb phrase, it must be preceded by a comma when the because clause explains why the event did not take place.”

    According to this rule, no comma is necessary before because in this sentence: “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac.” However, it is required in “The convention will not be delayed until Tuesday, because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac” (which is better organized as follows: “Because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac, the convention will be delayed until Tuesday”).

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