A Short Comma Quiz

By Mark Nichol

Here are five sentences that, through poor punctuation, lead readers astray. Determine how to punctuate them correctly, and then compare your solutions with the ones in the paragraph below each example.

1. “Now there’s a formula for disaster.”
As written, this statement reads like a pitch — to be followed by an exclamation point (or inflected as if there is one) — in a commercial or an advertisement for a new product: a disaster formula. To correctly communicate that the sentence is a commentary on an ill-advised proposal, the introductory adverb should be set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma: “Now, there’s a formula for disaster.” (Of course, in context, the latter meaning will be clear, but the comma is still required; it’s a signal that the emphasis is on there. In the pitch, the speaker would emphasize now.)

2. “United States bombs hotel killing three journalists.”
This newspaper headline conjures an image of a rampaging journalist-killing hotel halted, Godzilla-style, by the intervention of US bomber planes. What it means, however, is that US forces accidentally bombed a hotel, resulting in the deaths of three journalists. This meaning is clarified by the simple insertion of a sentence separating the clauses describing cause and effect: “United States bombs hotel, killing three journalists.”

3. “The next antiwar demonstration scheduled on April 7 may take aim at companies.”
By omitting commas from this sentence, the writer implies that of a series of antiwar demonstrations being sequentially scheduled on April 7, the next one may focus its attention on companies. However, “scheduled on April 7” is intended as a parenthetical statement (one that could be omitted with no loss of sense), so it must be set off by commas: “The next antiwar demonstration, scheduled on April 7, may take aim at companies.”

4. “The corporation’s waterfront plan is criticized by the deputy attorney general who says it violates land-use laws.”
This sentence prompts the same misunderstanding as the previous one: the implication that multiple things (or, in this case, people) exist when the writer intends to refer to only one. The false impression — that of two or more deputy attorney generals, only one has voiced the stated criticism — is eliminated by insertion of a comma: “The corporation’s waterfront plan is criticized by the deputy attorney general, who says it violates land-use laws.”

5. “You’ll get a coveted window card autographed by the cast and other memorabilia.”
Readers of this sentence might believe that not only the cast but also other memorabilia will autograph the coveted window card. To clarify, however, that the memorabilia will not participate in the signing (but will be provided along with the card signed by the cast), a comma must be inserted; note, too, that I’ve replaced the simple conjunction and with plus, which helps distance the closing phrase from the rest of the sentence: “You’ll get a coveted window card autographed by the cast, plus other memorabilia.” (“As well as” would serve the same function.)

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10 Responses to “A Short Comma Quiz”

  • Lena

    What about

    “You’ll get a coveted window card, autographed by the cast and other memorabilia.”

  • Laura

    Lena–that still suggests that the “other memorabilia” will be signing.

  • Bob

    A comma is definitely needed in this one:

    When eating the Chinese use chopsticks.

  • Michael Rochelle

    As simple as commas may seem, I can never get enough tips on their usage because of issues choosing between actual puctuation rules and style choices. I’m an English major and I’m not afraid to say that commas and semicolons still leave me scratching my head at times.

  • Carol

    “Here are five sentences that, though poor punctuation, lead readers astray.”

    Did you mean to say “through poor punctuation”?

  • Ian

    Well done, Carol. Here we were thinking Mark was just giving us comma errors to find, and he’s throne inn a spelling error two.

  • Mark Nichol

    Carol:

    Thanks for catching that (corrected) typo.

  • Mark Nichol

    Bob:

    Good point: “When eating the Chinese, use chopsticks” is definitely clearer.

  • Precise Edit

    Mark made a funny! (Or am I the only one to notice?)

    His example about eating the Chinese does demonstrate that a comma can change the meaning of the sentence. Zen Comma points out the need to put a comma after an introductory phrase, but the writer first needs to determine what is introductory and what is the main sentence.

    Another option, of course, is “When eating, the Chinese use chopsticks.”

  • Raxin

    That isn’t a quiz. A quiz requires the reader to respond with answers before it reveals the explanations.

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