Use Common Sense for Commas

By Mark Nichol

Commas are such cute little things with curly tails that their strength is often overlooked. When used haphazardly, their power can be untapped or misused. Employed correctly, however, they do much to convey a sentence’s meaning. The rules may seem complex, but they are also commonsensical.

Many writers believe that commas are necessary in the middle of a sentence only when they divide two independent clauses — two parts of a sentence that could stand on their own as distinct statements. But commas also serve as comprehension aids: Note the difference between “Knights wore metal shoes and gloves called gauntlets” and “Knights wore metal shoes, and gloves called gauntlets.” The first version implies that both items were referred to as gauntlets, and the second version correctly distinguishes that only the second item was labeled as such.

“Are they going to lock me up or shoot me?” looks like the writer is asking if one of these two outcomes will occur. “Are they going to lock me up, or shoot me?” correctly clarifies that the writer is asking which outcome will occur — and that’s a big difference made clear by the mighty little comma.

Traditionally, a comma was inserted after all introductory phrases, no matter how short: But the trend toward open punctuation and away from closed punctuation has relaxed this tradition. Unfortunately, though short introductory phrases may not look wrong in isolation, in text containing both short and long introductory phrases, when the latter cry out for a comma to give the reader a rest, inconsistency is awkward, so it’s best to always retain closed punctuation.

Sometimes, misunderstandings may occur when you omit a comma, as when a reader reads, “When she returned Jim’s head was already lying back against the pillow” and thinks at first that Jim’s head is being handed back to him — or its current owner.

Comments actually or conjecturally directed toward readers or a third party are awkward without a comma following an imperative (a form of address that tells someone to do something). The warning statement “Move over RCA and Sony, computer firms are becoming TV makers” starts the reader off at a disadvantage; who, they may think, is steamrolling over the television manufacturers in question? A comma after “move over” solves that problem.

Similarly, “Attention shoppers!” implies that attention is a commodity some store patrons are there to buy, and that the voice on the intercom is acoustically accosting just that class of consumer; “Attention, shoppers!” meanwhile, asks for something, then identifies who is being asked.

These rules may seem complicated. But there’s a simple test that usually works: When in doubt about whether or where to place a comma, read aloud the sentence in question, and visualize the comma as a hook that briefly makes the sentence run in place. If you hesitate or pause, insert the hook in the sentence to mark that place. If you don’t, don’t.

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11 Responses to “Use Common Sense for Commas”

  • Rob

    Nah. Pretty sure people could disambiguate without the comma in all those cases.

  • Tordek

    What I hate about that little rule of thumb is the most common error it causes.

    Some people believe that adding emphasis to the subject with a spoken pause translates to a comma, and we end up with “Of all punctuation signs, the comma, is the most misused one.”

    And I cringe every time.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tordek:

    Yes, common sense isn’t as common as you’d think. However, when reading your sample sentence aloud, I wouldn’t think of pausing after comma, and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do so: I can’t think of a situation in which one would pause between a noun and a verb. (Except in a sentence with a parenthetical phrase like “Of all the punctuation signs, the comma, not the period, is the most misused one.”)

    Your example is indeed cringe-worthy, but I believe it would not occur if the writer followed the rule of thumb.

  • Garrison

    The philosophy regarding the use of commas has changed somewhat, certainly over the last one-hundred years, and even over my lifetime, only slightly more than half of that. The number of places that commas are mandatory has decreased and there has been a general move away from commas for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.

    My fondness for Victorian writers has given me an appreciation of the extremely long sentence (I think they may have been phobic about periods) and the tendency to use commas at the drop of a hat. Writing of today is much more direct with fewer qualifications and asides included in sentences; this results in faster, and some would say less torturous, reading with a reduction in verbal detours and vaguely dark back alleys.

    Sometimes comma use is a creative decision and can be used to influence the pace and rhythm of a sentence.

    I agree that, when spoken aloud, the placement of commas can usually be determined. This is not fool-proof, however, and may actually be prone to regional and dialect differences in style of speaking. My experience is that people who pause at the right places while speaking do so because they know where the commas go, and people who don’t know where the commas go tend to pause in the wrong places. Writers tend to prewrite their sentences before they speak them, non-writers are less likely to do so and often pause to think of the next thing to say. In fact, it would be interesting to study punctuation skills as a function of overall receptive and expressive language fluency, but that may be more a topic for the neuropsychology journals than “Daily Writing Tips.”

    Wonderful article and very thought provoking.

  • Rebecca

    When in doubt, I reach for ‘Lapsing into a Comma’ and ‘Eat, Shoots & Leaves.’ These references are helpful.

  • Cygnifier

    Oh my. My experience has been that no rule of thumb has led to more errors of punctuation than the “put a comma when you pause” rule. For students who have poor reading skills or little experience scanning sentences aloud, this rule of thumb can only lead to trouble. Once I get across that they should NOT place commas based on pauses, their use of commas starts to improve and they quit splitting subjects/verbs or compound constructions with commas.

    Also, I would suggest that the comma placement re: knights’ shoes and gloves actually splits a compound object, which is generally not considered correct — perhaps one might punctuate it as follows: “Knights wore metal shoes and gloves, called gauntlets.”

  • Cecily

    Cygnifier: I agree with you about the danger of the “comma = pause” guideline.

    However, your suggestion of “Knights wore metal shoes and gloves, called gauntlets.” makes it sound as if both the gloves and shoes were called gauntlets – the very problem that Mark was trying to avoid with his comma placement.

    If you don’t like Mark’s suggestion (which I think is fine), you could consider rewording, rather than just repunctuating, e.g. “Knights wore metal gloves, called gauntlets, and metal shoes.”

  • Cygnifier

    Good suggestion, Cecily!

  • Mark Nichol

    Cecily:

    As Cygnifier acknowledged, your solution is a capital one — and it provides a good lesson in itself: When you are confronted with an error or infelicity in your own or someone else’s writing, and you are reluctant to employ the standard solution to resolve the problem, do an end run and recast the sentence.

  • Benjamin

    “Many writers believe that commas are necessary in the middle of a sentence only when they divide two independent clauses — two parts of a sentence that could stand on their own as distinct statements.”

    Ummm… Comma splice?

    I hate when I think I understand a basic rule of grammar and then another idiot editor’s opinion throws me off.

  • Mark Nichol

    Benjamin is a rude person, so I will ignore him, but I will clarify a point he brought up.

    The preceding sentence comprises two independent clauses separated by a comma and a conjunction. Replace the comma with a period, delete the conjunction, et voila! — two sentences. That is not a comma splice.

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