5 Cases of Insufficient Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

In each of the sentences below, the omission of one comma (two commas, in one case) obscures the intended meaning. Discussion and revision following each example provides clarity.

1. It’s not a real pleasant experience to tell you the truth.

This sentence implies that the writer does not enjoy telling the truth to someone. However, the phrase “to tell the truth” is merely augmenting the main clause, “It’s not a real pleasant experience,” and so should be set off from that clause: “It’s not a real pleasant experience, to tell you the truth.”

2. Believe me they have been working on this this for a long time.

“Believe me” is an introductory phrase that should be set off from the main clause of the sentence: “Believe me, they have been working on this for a long time.”

3. The important thing is they know what to watch for.

“The important thing” is a dependent clause; like “believe me,” it must be distinguished from the content of the main clause: “The important thing is, they know what to watch for.” Alternatively, that may be inserted in lieu of the comma: “The important thing is that they know what to watch for.”

4. To achieve cultural reform, Smith maintained that definitive actions to redesign incentive structures and establish clear accountability would be the most effective mechanisms.

The implication is that Smith came up with his opinion in order to achieve cultural reform. However, what the sentence means is that Smith declared that in order to achieve cultural reforms, the strategy embodied in his opinion should be pursued. To communicate this distinction, “Smith maintained” should be framed by commas to clarify that it is an attribution interjected in the main clause of the sentence: “To achieve cultural reform, Smith maintained, definitive actions to redesign incentive structures and establish clear accountability would be the most effective mechanisms.”

5. The study determined that voter fraud was almost nonexistent. Another study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School found that many reports of people voting twice or ballots being cast on behalf of dead people were largely the result of clerical errors.

The second sentence implies that a center at the law school released both studies in question. However, if the context makes clear that the second study was conducted at a different location, the description of that location must be treated parenthetically: “The study determined that voter fraud was almost nonexistent. Another study, by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School, found that many reports of people voting twice or ballots being cast on behalf of dead people were largely the result of clerical errors.”

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3 Responses to “5 Cases of Insufficient Punctuation”

  • Mark

    Very nice explanation. However, I noticed that in British English people insert/use less commas in their writings.

  • Fred Solomon

    Isn’t it also a problem in item 1 to use “real pleasant”? I would have used “really.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Number 1, the following one, and most of the others are superb!
    Thank you.
    “Believe me” is an introductory phrase that should be set off from the main clause of the sentence: “Believe me, they have been working on this for a long time.”
    Number 1 also makes a perfectly valid statement w/o the comma:
    “It is not a real pleasant experience to tell you the truth.”
    To answer a student’s question, it isn’t a real pleasant experience to tell him/her the truth, 12 weeks into the course, that you do not have ANY chance of passing the course…
    D.A.W.

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