5 Sentences Repaired by Correct Use of Commas

By Mark Nichol

1. “Students write a third essay regarding the impact of geography on history and culture.”
The implication of this sentence is that students produce three essays on the topic in question. But if the preceding text refers to differing topics for the first two essays, the sentence suffers from insufficient differentiation. This revision specifies that the third essay’s topic differs from those of the others: “Students write a third essay, this one regarding the impact of geography on history and culture.”

2. “Students participate in a workshop on learning to research effectively and refine their search with a professional researcher.”
The relationship between the verb phrases in this sentence is unclear: Do students first participate in a workshop and then refine their research, or do they participate in a workshop about researching effectively, during which they also refine their search? Either way, the sentence, because of the ambiguity, is erroneously organized.

If the former meaning is intended, the sentence should read, “Students participate in a workshop in which they first learn to research effectively and then refine their search with a professional researcher.” If the latter meaning is the correct interpretation, it should read, “Students participate in a workshop on learning to research effectively, and then refine their search with a professional researcher.”

3. “He invoked the dreaded comparison with Mary Smith, only Jones has been more successful in her sport than Smith.”
Because of the paucity of punctuation in this sentence, the sentence could be read as containing a comma splice, an error in which a comma is incorrectly employed in place of a more substantial punctuation mark. But if a semicolon or a period separates the two clauses, and the second element (depending on which punctuation mark is used, an independent clause or a separate sentence) seems to imply that no one other than Jones has been more successful than Smith, a non sequitur results.

It’s much more likely that only serves as a less formal synonym for however. However, just as when that word is used, the sentence still requires stronger punctuation to clarify its function: “He invoked the dreaded comparison with Mary Smith; only, Jones has been more successful in her sport than Smith.” The semicolon seems too formal for the casual only, though; a dash seems more appropriate. Either way, however, only must be set off from the following statement by a comma: “He invoked the dreaded comparison with Mary Smith — only, Jones has been more successful in her sport than Smith.”

4. “She also uses a Geiger counter, which measures radiation; motion detectors; barometric-pressure monitors; and thermometers.”
This sentence, containing four listed elements — only one of which, the first, is modified — is hampered by the notion that because of that extra phrase, the usual commas must be promoted to semicolons to bear the burden of supporting the sentence’s structure. When used with such short phrases, however, the semicolons seem overbearing.

The simple insertion of the conjunction plus, which serves to provide more distance between sentence elements than the standard and, obviates the complicating semicolon solution: “She also uses a Geiger counter, which measures radiation, plus thermometers, motion detectors, and barometric pressure monitors.” (Notice that, for euphony, I’ve reordered the additional list items according to the number of syllables in each item.)

5. “The majority has upheld the act in whole, not by relying on an expansive reading of the commerce clause, but on Congress’s firmly rooted power to tax.”
The initial proposition in this sentence, “The majority has upheld the act in whole not by relying on an expansive reading of the commerce clause . . .,” is a continuous thought, and there is no reason to include punctuation within it.

But there’s a larger problem: The sentence is not parallel. Relying should be repositioned to serve both propositions (those beginning “not on” and “but on”), because the structure of the two phrases, in the original sentence respectively headed by “not by” and “but on,” is discordant. The solution, which (like “not only . . . but also” constructions), requires no internal punctuation: “The majority has upheld the act in whole by relying not on an expansive reading of the commerce clause but on Congress’s firmly rooted power to tax.”

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10 Responses to “5 Sentences Repaired by Correct Use of Commas”

  • Dina

    Hi,

    What if i say: Students participate in a workshop on learning to research effectively and to refine their search with a professional researcher.

    if the intended meaning is: they participate in a workshop about researching effectively, during which they also refine their search

  • PTR

    I think your third sentence is still not “correct”. Sure, it may be correct by punctuation standards, but I’ve never run across such an odd use of the dash (instead of the semicolon) and the use of “only” rather than “however”.

    In fact, I’ve read the sentence five times and I still don’t understand it.

    I think the rewrite should depend on the context. Is “He” speaking to or of Jones, and then comparing Jones to Smith? Or is “He” comparing a third party to Smith, after which the author notes that Jones has been better (still) than Smith?

    If the former is the case, then why used “dreaded”? If Jones (the subject) has been more successful in her sport than Smith, the use of “dreaded” does not make sense (is this what you mean by the reference to a non sequitur).

    If the latter, however, then why add Jones to the mix at all? In this case I’d use”He invoked the dreaded comparison with Mary Smith, although Jones was more successful still than Smith.” Without this kind of qualifier, the addition of Jones to the same sentence doesn’t make sense either. Another way to write it would be “He invoked the dreaded comparison with Mary Smith. It should be noted, though, that Jones, who was not mentioned, was even more successful in her sport than Smith”. Or something like that.

  • PTR

    On to sentence 4.

    My inclination is to put the phrase into parenthesis – “She also uses a Geiger counter (to measure radiation), motion detectors, barometric pressure-monitors, and thermometers.”

    Any comments?

  • Ron

    “The majority has upheld the act in whole by relying not on an expansive reading of the commerce clause but on Congress’s firmly rooted power to tax.”

    One runs out of breath if saying the above sentence. Should punctuation take that into account?

  • Teruca

    Isn’t there an extra comma after the closing parenthesis in the last sentence?

    “The solution, which (like “not only . . . but also” constructions), requires no internal punctuation…”

  • Mark Nichol

    Ron:

    Punctuation is only partially relevant to pauses; one can use emphasis and de-emphasis, pace and cadence, and pausing to recite (aloud or in one’s mind) an extended sentence that lacks internal punctuation.

  • Ricky

    I have to humbly disagree with your solution to number 4. You’re very correct that commas should be used instead of semicolons, but I would be completely drawn out of the text by a sudden urge to find out what on earth a “plus thermometer” is.

  • Tarik Toulan

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    Tarik Toulan

  • Jack Dowden

    This is why I like short. Sentences.

  • Ankush

    @Ron: I agree with you. I also belong to the camp that likes to punctuate for emphasis and pace. Writing is no fun otherwise.

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