5 Cases of Excessive Commas

By Mark Nichol

The rules about commas can seem so complicated — and contradictory — that writers can (almost) be forgiven for tossing in an extra one or two. Here are several examples of overly generous deployment of commas.

1. “If a killer asteroid was, indeed, incoming, a spacecraft could, in theory, be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”
This thirty-word sentence is littered with six commas — one for every five words — five of them appearing before the halfway point. By simply bending the rule about bracketing interjections with commas — a rule that advocates of open punctuation flout routinely anyway — the number is reduced by two, rendering the sentence more free flowing: “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, a spacecraft could, in theory, be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”

One more comma can be eliminated by relocating the parenthetical phrase “in theory” to an earlier position in the sentence, so that the comma after incoming does double duty: “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, in theory, a spacecraft could be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”

2. “The metaphor, ‘The world is a machine,’ began to replace the metaphor, ‘The world is a living organism.’”
In this sentence, the comma preceding each instance of metaphor implies that that metaphor is the only one — not just in the sentence, but anywhere. (But two metaphors are expressed here, and innumerable others exist.) Metaphor, appearing in apposition to the two brief quotations, should not be set off from them: “The metaphor ‘The world is a machine’ began to replace the metaphor ‘The world is a living organism.’”

3. “The event is part of a catchy, public health message about the importance of emergency preparedness.”
Catchy and “public health” are not coordinate adjectives. The point is not that the message is catchy and public health; it’s that the public health message is catchy. Therefore, no comma is necessary: “The event is part of a catchy public health message about the importance of emergency preparedness.”

If, by contrast, the sentence read, for example, “The event is part of a catchy, quirky message about the importance of emergency preparedness,” note that because catchy and quirky are parallel — they are coordinate adjectives — a comma should separate them.

4. “The report was completed in December, 2012.”
A comma is necessary between a month and a year only if a date is specified (“The report was completed on December 1, 2012”): “The report was completed in December 2012.” (The same rule applies when the name of a season appears in place of the name of a month: “The report was completed in fall 2012.”)

5. “Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist, John Smith, sketching the American landscape along the way.”
Commas are necessary with this type of apposition only if the epithet is preceded by an article (“Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with a fellow fledgling artist, John Smith, sketching the American landscape along the way”): “Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist John Smith sketching the American landscape along the way.” Unfortunately, this type of error has gone viral — its ubiquity is mistaken for propriety — and is seemingly ineradicable.

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17 Responses to “5 Cases of Excessive Commas”

  • Matt Gaffney

    Example one is more properly in the subjunctive mood and its structure is more properly “In theory, if a killer asteroid were indeed incoming, a spacecraft could be launched to nudge it out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and eliminating the point of intersection.”—all with only three commas.

    Example two is dead on right.

    Example three should use “public-health,” not “public health,” as an adjective.

    I strongly disagree with the writer’s “no-comma” rule in example four.

    In example five, the writer’s correct that the absence of an article makes first comma unnecessary, but the second comma is absolutely necessary in order to avoid confusion about who’s sketching.

  • Gordon Havens

    In example 1 I would eliminate two more commas without altering – and hopefully improving – the flow.
    “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, a spacecraft could in theory be launched to nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way, changing its speed and the point of intersection.”

  • Bill lawrence

    In 5, it is still not clear who did the sketching. How about: “Jones and fellow fledgling artist John Smith traveled by boxcar from California to New York, with [Jones] [Smith] sketching the American landscape along the way.”

  • Art

    Hi Mark,
    I appreciate your labors!

    Just one question.
    In example 4, shouldn’t fall be capitalized as a noun?

  • Ian

    Help, I thought I was getting this hyphen business, then you thow a “public health message” at me. Shouldn’t that be public-health message?

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist …”

    I say that something else before “fellow” is necessary or should be necessary. Also, I have been told that omitting it is a case of journalistic laziness. It is readily seen that omitting it is an example of discarding information for no particular reason.

    So, in between “with” and “fellow”, place one of these {a, the, his, her, my, your, our, their, Jones’s, Smith’s}. There is a lot of difference in meaning between the following:
    {a fellow artist, his fellow artist, her fellow artist, my fellow artist, your fellow artist, our felow artist, Picasso’s fellow artist, etc.}

    Why take that information and flush it down the commode? Putting it in there requires just one short word.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    To Ian:
    Public health is one of those well-known combination adjectives that do not require a hyphen, such as these:
    {high school, elementary school, middle school, Air Force, Coast Guard, Interstate Highway, state college}. This subject was discussed in this very column quite recently. Look for it.

    For example: High school students are still mentally immature.
    Air Force enlisted men were involved in restraiing the criminal until policemen arrived.
    My mother was a middle school teacher.
    The state college funding is seriously deficient now.
    The antisubmarine warfare capabilities of the Japanese Empire were seriously lacking during 1942 – 45, hence U.S. Navy submarines wreaked havoc on Japanese shipping, especially during 1944.

    The hyphen in “antisubmarine-warfare” is not needed, and furthermore, we do NOT need a hyphen in “anti-submarine” or “anti-aircraft”. These are British affectations. Use “antisubmarine” and “antiaircraft”.
    “Anti” only rerquires a hyphen when the stem word is a proper noun, such as in “anti-Catholic”, “anti-Anglican”, “anti-French”, “anti-American”, and “anti-Federalist”.

    We could even conceive of an antiantimissile missile, though nobody has ever made one.
    D.A.W.

  • Bill

    The Associated Press leans more toward not using commas if the meaning of a sentence is clear without them.
    I think in item 2 the writer was following the rule of using commas before and after quotes: She said, “I’m leaving at noon.”
    To Art: You don’t capitalize seasons for the same reason you don’t capitalize times of day like morning, afternoon and evening. They are not proper nouns.

  • Carol

    I think the phrase “in theory” is misplaced in number one. The way it is written seems like it refers to the launch. Launches are possible. The theory is the impact it would have on the asteroid.

    Also, I believe the theory is that the spacecraft would eliminate the asteroid’s intersection with Earth, so I modified that part as well.

    “If a killer asteroid was indeed incoming, a spacecraft could be launched and, in theory, nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way by changing its speed and direction.”

  • Jean Kearsley

    I applaud Carol’s version for her identification of the misplaced “in theory.” (That said, the very presence of the phrase underlines the necessity for the subjunctive mood in the introductory phrase.) However, I abhor such an awkward and tortured back-formation verb as “incoming!” My final version: “If a killer asteroid were indeed approaching, a spacecraft could be launched and, in theory, nudge the asteroid out of Earth’s way by changing its speed and direction.”

  • Jeff

    “antiantimissile missile” lol!

  • joy2elmundo

    Agree with Matt on all counts.

  • Stephen

    Point 4: You only need the comma when the date directly precedes the year. So “December 1, 2012” needs a comma, but “1 December 2012” does not.

  • Fred

    Commas will place themselves. Read the sentence aloud. You will automatically break (pause) where there should be a comma.

    Writing rules are all well and good, but… The purpose of writing is to impart something (knowledge, inspiration, fun). If a sentence does that cleanly and clearly, then the rules don’t matter (so much).

  • Erin

    Great post. I used to suffer from the first mistake but, sensing that something was wrong, I did some research and adjusted accordingly.

    I wanted to point out that in #3 I would explain that “public health” is a noun, because I think the confusion may come from the idea that “public” is an adjective that is modifying “health.”

    Also, I took note of the post-correction sentence of #5. For a moment I wondered where the comma went after “…John Smith.” Of course, it would only be appropriate to put a comma there if the intention was to communicate that Jones was “sketching the American landscape along the way.” However, the more I look at it, the more I find it difficult to determine who, if not both of them, is sketching. If it was John Smith sketching, it could easily be clarified by adding a “who was” before “sketching.”

    Come to think of it, it’s this kind of ambiguity that typically extends to a ridiculous degree the time I use to edit my writing.

    If you haven’t yet written a post on ambiguity, I would be very happy to see one in the future!

    “Jones traveled by boxcar from California to New York with fellow fledgling artist John Smith sketching the American landscape along the way.”

  • Penelope Silvers

    Great comma review! You think you know the rules until you start writing professionally, and then the comma questions will begin flashing at you like a bright neon light.

  • Charlie

    I dont understand why there is a comma in sentences like this one:

    “All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions”

    I see this a lot but why is the second part separated by a comma since it seems to be a dependent clause, and I was taught that only if such a clause appeared at the beginning of the sentence would you put a comma. I was also taught that there would be a comma here only if the subject was stated …”conceptions, and is executed by…”

    I see this a lot so obviously I am missing something.

    Thanks!

    I see this a lot

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