3 Cases of Too Many Commas

By Mark Nichol

This post illustrates several types of sentences that incorporate excessive punctuation. Each example is followed by a discussion and a revision.

1. Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him, has been the subject of contentious debate.

A verb is preceded by a comma only when that comma is one of a pair that frames a parenthetical phrase: “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him has been the subject of contentious debate.” (An example of the type of exception noted is “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and kill him, and why the police reacted the way they did, has been the subject of contentious debate.”)

2. The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive, at best, and noncompliant, at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.

The punctuation bracketing the phrases “at best” and “at worst” is optional, but because they, in combination with the required commas that set off the sentence’s parenthetical phrase and its subordinate clause, create a cluttered effect, it’s best to omit the discretionary ones: “The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive at best and noncompliant at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.” (Note that in the case of “at worst,” only the preceding comma can be deleted, because the one that follows it serves double duty, setting off the subordinate clause as well.)

3. He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.

This sentence is punctuated as if “Justice Antonin Scalia” is an appositive of conservative—that is, as if the phrase and the word are equivalent to each other—meaning that the parenthetical phrase could be omitted without affecting the validity of the sentence’s grammatical structure. However, the result would be the flawed statement “He would replace conservative, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.”

Conservative is simply part of a descriptor providing additional information about the person named; therefore, no intervening punctuation is necessary: “He would replace conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Note that because the descriptor is “conservative justice,” not simply conservative, justice is not a job title and is therefore not capitalized.)

A revision of the sentence that incorporates an appositive and thus validates the parenthetical punctuation, is “He would replace a conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Here, “Antonin Scalia” —and the framing punctuation—could be omitted without damage to the sentence.)

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1 Response to “3 Cases of Too Many Commas”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Very nice, very informative, good examples.
    D.A.W.

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