Answers to Questions About Commas #5

By Maeve Maddox

Several readers have sent in questions regarding comma use. I’ll take them in turn.

1. Does a comma always go before the word too?

No.

Whether or not a writer places a comma before the word too depends upon the desired emphasis.

Too is an adverb meaning “in addition, furthermore, moreover, besides, also.”
The only reason to place a comma before the too is to slow the pace of the sentence or change the emphasis:
My dog can fetch the paper too.
My dog can fetch the paper, too.

The same option applies when the too comes within the sentence:
I too can recite the Gettysburg Address.
I, too, can recite the Gettysburg Address.

A note in the CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) recommends that we use commas with too only when we want to emphasize an abrupt change of thought. The editor gives this memorable example:
He didn’t know at first what hit him, but then, too, he hadn’t ever walked in a field strewn with garden rakes.

In most cases, commas with too are unnecessary.

2. Is it correct to place a semicolon before however and a comma after it?

Yes.

The building was completely remodeled on the inside; however, the 18th century façade was left unaltered.

3. Is it necessary to place a comma before “as well as”?

You don’t need a comma before “as well as” when it introduces words that are essential to the meaning of the entire sentence:

I like mysteries as well as historical novels.
The no-smoking policy applies to teachers as well as to students.

The “as well as” phrase is enclosed with commas if–like a non-restrictive clause–it can be left out without affecting the meaning of the main clause:

Mysteries, as well as historical novels, rank high on my list of favorites.
The teachers, as well as the students, must respect the no-smoking policy.

4. Can you replace a semicolon with a comma?

No, with certain exceptions.

The semicolon is stronger than a comma, but not as strong a stop as a period. Its usual job is to separate independent clauses that are closely related in thought.

Grandpa patiently fed the kitten with an eye-dropper; he’d always had a soft spot for baby animals.

Sometimes, if the clauses are very short, commas can replace semicolons or coordinating conjunctions to achieve literary effect, as in the usual translation of Julius Caesar’s famous “Veni, vidi, vici”: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

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6 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Commas #5”

  • Mel

    As usual, thanks for correcting me on this. I learned to always place a comma before “too” and “as well.” Thanks again for your website and the DailyWritingTips.

  • daniel

    surely it changes the meaning of the sentence – not just the emphasis?

    [My dog can stand on his back legs.] My dog can fetch the paper, too.

    [My aardvark can fetch the paper.] My dog can fetch the paper too.

    Or is it the other way around?? Is there no way to distinguish meanings without rethinking the sentence?

  • Cherie Tucker

    I have a question about the use of a comma before the word ‘and’ or ‘but’. It was my understanding these words automatically indicated a pause to the reader. I edit the College’s publications and find many people add a comma before these two words. Can you please clarify?
    Thank you.

  • Deborah HH

    All this time I’ve been diligently including the commas around “too.” Well. No more, I tell you (she shakes her fist). No more (unless I need the emphasis).

  • Nicole

    I was taught in school that the comma before too completely changes the meaning of the sentence. I read, “My dog can fetch the paper, too,” as if someone had said “My dog can fetch the paper,” and then someone else responded, “My dog can fetch the paper, too.”

    However, “My dog can fetch the paper too” would be like the person said, “My dog can sit, speak, and play dead. My dog can fetch the paper too.”

  • dragonwielder

    @ Cherie –
    I think using the comma before ‘and’ or ‘but’ is sometimes a matter of style or personal preference, but usually it depends on the sentence.

    In general, in sentences where you’re separating two independent clauses that have a conjunction, use the comma (like in my previous sentence). In some of these cases, like if the clauses are short, it would be ok not to have a comma there, although to many people it sounds better to have the comma.

    If you have an appositive phrase, and it has a conjuction (like this one), use the comma.

    But, if you’re talking about using a comma before ‘and’ in a list of things, that is definitely a style rule. For example, I can say that I like apples, bananas, and oranges, but some stylebooks would tell me to take out the comma after “bananas”.

    Anyone else have anything to add or clarify? Any grammar or style rules I’m forgetting about?

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