A 10-Point Comma Quiz

By Mark Nichol

Here’s a quiz: Do the following sentences require an additional comma (or perhaps two), the omission of an existing one (or two), or both? Answers and explanations follow.

1. The word breakfast literally means to break the fasting period of your night’s sleep, so you can refuel for the day.

2. The first scene takes place in a dimly lit, tactical command center on an aircraft carrier.

3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps,” only the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

4. One of their biggest challenges was coming up with a story that would resonate on a deep, emotional level.

5. Another English writer named Richard Browne used scientific reasoning to confirm the theory.

6. Among slaves, other popular instruments included drums made from hollowed logs covered with animal hides or kitchen pots and pans.

7. They continued to run the establishment, and took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons who kept in regular contact.

8. The storm inspired the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

10. “Newspapers and polling organizations predicted that Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, would be America’s next president.”

Answers and Explanations

1. Delete. Inclusion of the comma in this sentence incorrectly implies that thanks to the meaning of the word breakfast, you can refuel for the day.

2. Delete. The reference is not to a command center that is dimly lit and tactical; it’s to a tactical command center that is dimly lit. (Don’t let technical jargon deter you from making sense of a compound noun.)

3. Both. Only here is not a qualifier that suggests “the ‘skiers’ and nobody else”; it’s a synonym for however, so punctuate as you would were that word used instead. Also, the first comma should be not just deleted but also replaced by an em dash that sets off the unusual circumstance described in the final phrase. (References to skiing are enclosed in scare quotes because the participants are not actually skiers but are engaging in an analogous activity.)

4. Delete. As with sentence #2, the appositive structure is confused. The reference is to an emotional level that is deep, not a level that is deep and emotional, so deep and emotional are noncoordinate adjectives and therefore require no intervening comma.

5. Add. Unless a previous sentence referenced a different English writer by that name, the phrase “named Richard Browne” should be set off by two commas to demonstrate that it’s an appositive to “another English writer” and is therefore parenthetical. (In other words, it’s nonessential; the sentence would make sense without it.)

6. Add. The drums were not made from logs covered with hides or with kitchenware; they could be hide-covered logs, or they could be pots and pans. That fact needs to be clarified with a comma following hides, plus a second from, inserted before kitchen to complete the parallel structure.

7. Both. The comma is neither necessary nor incorrect, but if it’s retained, a second they, after and, would smooth the sentence somewhat. But the definite error is this: Unless there are two groups of progeny — sons who kept in regular contact, and sons who didn’t, an appositive comma must be added after sons.

8. Delete. A quick online search will inform you that Hurston wrote more than one novel, so the nonrestrictive comma, which incorrectly implies that she published just one novel, should be jettisoned.

9. Add. The lack of a comma after tribes suggests that the slaves encountered other tribes and other dance forms, but then another verb crops up after that and creates a cognitive logjam. What the sentence means is that slaves’ encounters with slaves from other tribes led to increased exposure to new dance forms. The inserted comma will clarify that a new clause begins with and.

10. Delete. This error of apposition is one of the most annoying, relentlessly viral mistakes in English today. (Think of it this way: A comma implies a pause. Does the reader pause at all, much less twice, during this sentence?) Evidently, the misunderstanding stems from a confusion with the appositive structure of the phrase form exemplified in “Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate.”

The sentence would be correct if the were inserted before the epithet “Republican candidate,” but it is alternatively rendered proper by the omission of the two commas. The appropriate correction depends on the context (that is, whether a previous reference to a Republican candidate has been made).

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19 Responses to “A 10-Point Comma Quiz”

  • Peter

    All good except 9: you need to delete the comma that is there as well as add the one you mention. And I don’t like your “Think of it this way: A comma implies a pause. Does the reader pause at all, much less twice, during this sentence?” — a comma doesn’t always imply a pause, sometimes it’s just a change in stress (and pauses don’t always need commas … which you didn’t say, but some people assume that)

  • Pedro Cardoso

    I would almost be ashamed to admit I got almost all of these wrong, had I not the clear suspicion that you devised all of these sentences masterfully to indeed cause that effect: hence the reason this is such a superb piece of writing, both in form and substance.

    Saying how I really like what you’re doing at this website is a crude understatement, but hopefully it will suffice; I do hope you find ever increasing success with this project: it shall be well earned.

  • Brian

    I’m confused by #3. I assume, when you say to punctuate as you would with “however,” that you mean a semicolon before and a comma after. But then you say to replace “the first comma” (I only see one) with an em dash. Can you clarify? What am I misunderstanding?

  • Tristan

    Thanks for this. I need lots of help with commas. Do you have some further reading or lessons that I might follow forward with?

  • Dustin

    Thanks for taking the time to put the quiz together. It was a fun challenge. For me, it would have been even more helpful and clear to have the properly punctuated sentences in the answers along with the reasoning.

  • Grace

    Is this what you mean for #3?

    3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps”—only, the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

    A comma after “only” doesn’t look right to me, but that’s how I would punctuate if it were “however”.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter:

    I disagree. In #9, the comma following the introductory phrase “As slaves were moved around” is not essential, but as a comma conservative, I prefer to leave it in.

    How about this revision for the phrase in question in #10?: “A comma implies a pause or a change in stress, neither of which is necessary when describing and naming someone as in ‘Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey.’

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    Before:
    “The finishing stage is a series of asphalt ‘ski jumps,’ only the ‘skiers’ are skiing the wrong way.”

    After:
    “The finishing stage is a series of asphalt ‘ski jumps’ — only, the ‘skiers’ are skiing the wrong way.”

    I meant that I recommend inserting a comma after only as you would do with however, but then, rather than preceding only with a semicolon, which (as you state) would be correct were however used in place of only, I advise an em dash instead of a semicolon. An em dash seems more appropriate because of the surprise element described in the final phrase.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Re #3, the use of ‘however’ immediately after a semicolon and before a comma can jar slightly (‘nevertheless’ is often preferable, as per Strunk & White).

  • Ken K

    8 out of 10, is not bad for me.

  • Peter

    I disagree. In #9, the comma following the introductory phrase “As slaves were moved around” is not essential, but as a comma conservative, I prefer to leave it in.

    It’s not only not-essential, it’s not-right; you no more need (or want) a pause or change in stress at that point than in #10, and leaving it in when adding the second comma makes “they encountered other tribes and dance forms” appear parenthetical.

  • Peter

    8 out of 10, is not bad for me.

    Ha ha, very funny. (I hope that comma was a joke…)

  • Kenia

    Love, love, love this! Can we get some more quizes?? I actually printed it out and sat with it, and feel like I learned something. Thanks! 🙂

    ~An ENGineer – not an ENGlish major – trying to make up for years of right-brain neglect…

  • Mark Nichol

    At a visitor’s request, I provide the answer key here:

    1. The word breakfast literally means to break the fasting period of your night’s sleep so you can refuel for the day.

    2. The first scene takes place in a dimly lit tactical command center on an aircraft carrier.

    3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps” — only, the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

    4. One of their biggest challenges was coming up with a story that would resonate on a deep emotional level.

    5. Another English writer, named Richard Browne, used scientific reasoning to confirm the theory.

    6. Among slaves, other popular instruments included drums made from hollowed logs covered with animal hides, or kitchen pots and pans.

    7. They continued to run the establishment, and took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons, who kept in regular contact.

    8. The storm inspired the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

    9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes, and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

    10. Newspapers and polling organizations predicted that Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey would be America’s next president.

  • Liz

    Wow. I feel like all my English teachers taught me lots of incorrect grammar! I have a long way to go, but I’m excited to learn more (is that proper comma placement?). I also really appreciate everyone’s comments. They’re helping me make sure I understand the reasoning behind the comma placement or omission.

  • Precise Edit

    Regarding #7

    PARSING THE SENTENCE

    This sentence has a compound predicate, i.e., two predicates with the same subject.
    Subject: “they”
    Predicate #1: “continued to run the establishment”
    Predicate #2: “took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons who kept regular contact”

    REMOVING THE COMMA

    The comma needs to go. No comma should separate the two predicate, based on the concept that no comma should separate the subject and its predicate. For example, you would not put a comma after “they” because that would separate the subject from the first predicate.

    In the same manner, you do not put a comma before the second predicate because a comma in that place would separate the second predicate from the subject.

    In specific cases, you might have a comma there, but only if required by another comma rule, such as to identify a non-restrictive clause, as in the case below. This is not the case in this sentence, so no comma is needed before “and.”

    Could you leave that comma in place? Sure, you could leave it in for stylistic purposes. But it will be an error, much like starting a sentence with “but.” Quoting from Zen Comma, “a writer may choose to deliberately break this rule if the first predicate is especially long and complex.” The key word in this quotation is “deliberately.”

    ADDING “THEY”

    As you noted, the sentence may “feel” smoother with a second “they.” In that case, the comma would be necessary. With a second “they,” you would have 2 independent clauses joined by the coordinating conjunction “and,” thus requiring a comma. This would give you, “They continued to run the establishment, and they took great pride….”

    THE REAL REASON FOR A COMMA BEFORE “WHO”

    I most differ with your explanation regarding a comma before “who.” I agree that the absence of a comma indicates they have other sons who do not keep in contact. Without a comma, “who kept in regular contact” is a restrictive clause (similar to clauses starting with “that”). As a restrictive clause, “who kept in regular contact” differentiates these sons from other, non-contacting, sons. Restrictive clauses are not set off with commas.

    If, in fact, they have no other sons, then “who kept in regular contact” needs a comma. However, that comma is not there to indicate an appositive, as you note. The comma will indicate a non-restrictive clause. Non-restrictive clauses, such as those beginning with “which,” are separated from the main sentence with commas.

  • Precise Edit

    @Liz

    “I have a long way to go, but I’m excited to learn more (is that proper comma placement?).”

    Yes, that is proper comma placement. You have two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. As such, you need a comma before the coordinating conjunction.

    1st independent clause: “I have a long way to go”
    2nd independent clause: “I’m excited to learn more (is that proper comma placement?).”
    Coordinating conjunction: “but”

    You correctly placed a comma before “but.”

  • Precise Edit

    Ok, this is the last comment I’ll make (other than responses, if necessary).

    Regarding #9

    Your correction: As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes, and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

    My correction: 9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes, and dance forms, such as the Calenda, gained widespread intertribal appeal.

    “Such as the Calenda” is a parenthetical expression and requires commas.

    If you really don’t want commas there, you could have written this:
    “As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes, and such dance forms as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.”

  • Global View

    As I posted on Ragan.com, this would have been a LOT more helpful and readable if you had repeated the test sentence with the correct punctuation after each explanation. It was hard to make sense of your answers and explanations without constantly scrolling up and down. By the time I got to number 7, I was so annoyed by all the scrolling required that I lost interest in the article.

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