5 Sentences in Need of Commas

By Mark Nichol

Commas signal delineation in sentences, sometimes showing the break point between two thoughts and sometimes marking the beginning and end of a phrase inserted in the midst of a sentence. Here are five sentences in which a single comma, or the second of an inseparable pair, is missing, with revisions and explanations.

1. “Even when he was caught, some say he was plotting.”
The phrase “some say” is an interjection in the midst of the statement “Even when he was caught, he was plotting.” It is not enough to merely insert the phrase; one must bracket it in commas (the first of which supersedes the original comma, the function of which is to separate the sentence’s two clauses): “Even when he was caught, some say, he was plotting.”

2. “Sorry guys, she’s married.”
When directing a comment at readers, the writer must set off with commas the word or words used to identify the audience: “Sorry, guys, she’s married.” (Otherwise, the writer appears to be addressing guys who are sorry — though they are sorry if they’re thinking they have a chance with the woman in question, so the erroneous version almost works.) The sentence is further improved by distinguishing the internal punctuation to enhance the impact of the statement: “Sorry, guys — she’s married.”

3. “Now there’s a formula for ethical quandary.”
Terms that are located at the beginning of a sentence and that refer to time (now, soon, before, afterward, and so on) may or may not, depending on their function, be followed by a comma, but in this case, in which now is used as a meaningless interjection and the emphasis is on the expletive there’s, it is essential: “Now, there’s a formula for ethical quandary.” Otherwise, the statement reads like a pitch from a television commercial for a shampoo formulated to eradicate ethical quandary. (Now, that would be a hot-selling product.)

4. “Residents decide driving, and shorter trips to places like Canada are safer options.”
The phrase referring to travel to Canada is an interjection inserted into “Residents decide driving is the safer option,” with a change in the verb is and conversion of the singular option to the plural options to accommodate the additional choice: “Residents decide driving, and shorter trips to places like Canada, are safer options.” (Note that if the conjunction and were replaced with or, the verb and the form of the noun would remain singular: “Residents decide driving, or shorter trips to places like Canada, is a safer option.”)

Alternatively, the sole comma in the original version could be omitted (“Residents decide driving and shorter trips to places like Canada are safer options”), but that revision changes the sense somewhat, turning a parenthetical aside into an integral part of the statement.

5. “This city knows how to create high-rise neighborhoods while San Francisco just talks about it.”
Without a comma between the two clauses in this sentence, it reads as if one city has the knowledge about how to create high-rise neighborhoods during the time San Francisco just talks about it. But the meaning is that while San Francisco dawdles, the other city does: “This city knows how to create high-rise neighborhoods, while San Francisco just talks about it.” While is not used here to mean “at the same time,” denoting a continuation of one thought; it is a synonym for whereas, and the comma signals a new thought.

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7 Responses to “5 Sentences in Need of Commas”

  • Malu

    Isn’t this wrong?
    ++
    The phrase referring to travel to Canada is an interjection inserted into “Residents decide driving is the safer option,” with a change in the verb is and conversion of the singular option to the plural options to accommodate the additional choice: “Residents decide driving, and shorter trips to places like Canada, are safer options.”
    ++
    The comma shoud go:
    “Residents decide driving and shorter trips, to places like Canada, are safer options.”

  • Joseph M Gaffney

    The first example, “Even when he was caught, some say he was plotting” can indeed be modified by inserting a comma between “say” and “he”; however, to me and, I suspect, many others, that insertion can also be deemed to change the meaning of the sentence somewhat.

    Consider reversing the clauses in the sentence to “Some say he was plotting, even when he was caught.”

    The difference is admittedly nuanced, but not altogether incorrect.

  • Curtis

    Mark,

    Your first example could be made more clear by recasting the statement: “Some say that, even when he was caught, he was plotting.” To me, this removes all ambiguity.

    Now, did I get that first comma in the right place in my example, or should it follow “say”? And what’s the rule?

  • Mark Nichol

    Curtis:

    Your revision is also valid, but the order in which those phrases appear depends on what preceded the sentence. In the original context, it was more appropriate for “some say” to be a parenthetical. If the sentence were to be constructed as you suggest, the first comma is optional: In “Some say that, even when he was caught, he was plotting,” “even when he was caught” is a parenthetical to the basic sentence “Some say he was plotting.” In “Some say that even when he was caught, he was plotting,” the single comma separates two simple clauses. I prefer the latter, which flows more smoothly.

  • Sally

    Or you could say, “Even when he was caught, some say that he was plotting.”

  • Aaron Roark

    All of this is arguable and none of it is carved in stone. When using commas, less is more.

  • Precise Edit

    Regarding #1: With “say” in the present tense, the comma is required, as you noted.

    However, if “say” were in the past tense, the comma might not be required.

    “Even when he was caught, some [people] said he was plotting.” (At this time of his capture, some people claimed that he was plotting. Here, the subject is “some.”)

    “Even when he was caught, some said, he was plotting.” (Here, the subject is “he.”)

    The confusion results from ambiguity about the subject of the sentence. The commas in both cases help identify the subject.

    Commas are great!

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