Answers to Questions About Commas
In this post, I’ve reproduced some questions posed in e-mail or comments to Daily Writing Tips about commas, followed by my responses.
1. Which comma-style-in-a-series do you prefer, Oxford/Chicago Manual or AP? Why?
I prefer employing the serial comma because doing so rarely introduces ambiguity, which is more likely when the serial comma is omitted. (See this section in the Wikipedia entry on the serial comma, which explains why because serial commas are sometimes necessary for clarity and should therefore, for the sake of consistency, always be employed.)
2. I keep finding commas placed after but, as in this sample from a Bloomsbury novel: “She is not yet that committed but, determined not to be ridiculous, she makes herself bite into the Bakewell slice.” I was raised to put a comma before the but. Is this another matter of American versus British usage, or is there a grammatical nicety here that I am missing?
The comma after but is necessary because it signals that what follows it and precedes the next comma is an interjection, and the insertion of another comma is also recommended: The correct punctuation is “She is not yet that committed, but, determined not to be ridiculous, she makes herself bite into the Bakewell slice.”
3. I have read books where authors neglect using the comma in phrases like “me too.” I don’t know whether my being irked when I see this is completely wrong, but I would like more information about it.
In the usages you describe, the tag too should indeed be preceded by a comma, but the punctuation mark is often omitted in informal or conversational contexts or simply out of ignorance.
4. I refer to my stylebooks all the time in an effort to get [appositive epithets] right. Do you know of an easy mnemonic device that can help me remember this rule?
I don’t have any mnemonic for this matter, but think of an epithet as an adjective: “Daily Writing Tips contributor Mark Nichol” describes which particular type of Mark Nichol is being identified. Just as you wouldn’t punctuate “blue car” with a comma between the adjective and the noun and another following the noun, you don’t insert commas before and after your name. Or consider the subject in “Planet Earth is our home.” Planet is an epithet, and Earth is not bracketed by commas.
5. In “Strange and surely intentional was the omission of her name in the credits,” should “and surely intentional” be set off with commas? And would you please expand on such when the second is not clearly subordinate — e.g., an aside.
This type of phrasing is highly flexible in terms of punctuation, and what the writer does depends not on construction but on connotation. If a pairing of adjectives or other parts of speech is straightforward and sensible — lithe and graceful, hale and hearty, cheap and shoddy — the second element need not be set off, but when it is extraordinary, emphatic treatment is effective.
Grammatically speaking, no punctuation is necessary in the sentence you provided, but the force of delivery of the additional information is heightened by setting it off from the main clause: “Strange, and surely intentional, was the omission of her name in the credits” ensures that the reader momentarily ponders the import of the deliberate omission. “Strange (and surely intentional) was the omission of her name in the credits” does the same while suggesting a conspiratorial whisper between the writer and the reader on the topic. “Strange — and surely intentional — was the omission of her name in the credits” intensifies the impact by pushing the surmise onto center stage.
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