More Answers to Questions About Commas

By Mark Nichol

Here are a few questions I have received recently about insertion or omission of commas.

1. When there are two introductory clauses, as in “In fact, to that end, let’s work hard as a team,” I’m wondering whether a comma should follow “to that end” or whether including another comma so close to the one following “In fact” looks cluttered.

I would retain the second comma, because I would retain it if “In fact” were omitted, and I prefer to be consistent. The choice is a matter of preference between open (less) and close (more) punctuation, and I believe that close punctuation is more conducive to clarity and smooth reading. (However, you might also consider whether “in fact” is, in fact, necessary. It is superfluous as I just used it, and although I don’t know the context of the preceding sentence(s) in the source material, it’s likely extraneous in the statement you provided, too.)

2. I’m never sure when to use a comma before because and when not to. I’ve read various explanations but am still confused. Would it be accurate as a rule of thumb to omit a comma when the word only can be inserted in front of because without changing the meaning? In your example, the change would read, “The convention will be delayed until Tuesday [only] because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac now bearing down on Florida.” If the sentence is still true with only inserted, then omit a comma before because—does this work as a rule of thumb?

In a sentence constructed like the example above, when the verb phrase (“will be delayed”) is not negated, a comma is omitted regardless of the presence or absence of only.

It is required, however, in “The convention will not begin on Monday, because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac” (which is better organized as follows: “Because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac, the convention will not begin on Monday”). The absence of a comma in “The convention will not begin on Monday because of the threat of Tropical Storm Isaac” invites the reader to ask, “Why, then, will it begin on Monday?” This question, obviously, does not reflect the meaning intended.

Another Daily Writing Tips reader provided this citation from The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style: “When because follows a negated verb phrase, it must be preceded by a comma when the because clause explains why the event did [or will] not take place.”

3. I’ve generally been using a comma before then in a sentence, but I find places it doesn’t sound like it’s needed. When I did a search online, I found that people have different opinions. Does it really matter? Can it be done either way for style, or does there always have to be a comma before it?

In an “if . . . then” statement, a comma preceding then is necessary: “If I agree, then she’ll be happy.” If the comma is deleted, then might seem, at least initially, to refer to time (equivalent to “If I agree at that time, rather than at another time, she’ll be happy”), so, for clarity, insert the comma. Note, however, that an “if . . . then” statement doesn’t necessarily require then. The second sentence in this paragraph has that structure but lacks then (except referring to the word as a word, which doesn’t count).

The sample sentence could be written, “If I agree, she’ll be happy.” Here, too, omitting the comma would create ambiguity: Someone reading, “If I agree she’ll be happy” might begin to assume that the writer is concurring that the other person will be happy at some other time, and that the sentence is merely an introductory phrase, only to find that no additional wording (for example, “she’ll appreciate that I share her opinion”) follows.

In a sentence such as “I had a cup of coffee, then set to work,” the comma is also required. However, if a conjunction precedes then (“I had a cup of coffee and then set to work”), the comma is omitted because it is redundant to the conjunction. When then is employed as an emphatic filler (“What, then, is the point?”), though, the comma is of course necessary as the second in a pair of punctuation marks that bracket the parenthetical word.

Writing that deviates from these rules may still be understandable — though perhaps after possible initial confusion — but it’s colloquial and doesn’t reflect well on careful writers.

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6 Responses to “More Answers to Questions About Commas”

  • Fred

    About today’s comma useage:
    I use the read-aloud test. Read the questionable sentence out loud as a stranger might read it. That, usually, immediately tells you whether a comma is needed or not.

  • Ian

    Similar to the first question above is this one, and I quote the last sentence of your first reply:
    “It is superfluous as I just used it, and although I don’t know the context of the preceding sentence(s) in the source material, it’s likely extraneous in the statement you provided, too.)”
    By your argument should there not also be a comma after the “and”, since from “although” to “material,” is a separate clause?
    Like Gordon, I don’t want to introduce extraneous commas, but what is the convention? (Unlike Godon, I don’t have undying faith in my English teachers.)

  • Patty

    My boss and I continually disagree about the use of a comma after the word “which”. In some cases, the comma seems well placed; in others, it does not. My preference is to use it on a case-by-case basis, but my boss insists on always adding the comma. Is there an actual rule for using a comma after “which”?

    Regarding the comments above, you cannot just leave out commas when you’re not sure how to use them. Most often, you will change the meaning of the sentence and create confusion on the part of the reader (whether they realize it or not). It’s better to just check your reference manual and get it right, especially if you may be judged by the quality (and clarity) of your writing.

  • Narayan Sharma

    If a sentence starts with “Finally”, is a comma required after it?

  • Gordon Havens

    My high school English teacher back in the early 60s, Mary Margaret Johnson, disliked commas and always preached, “When in doubt leave them out.” I have lived with that rule very well thank you.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    Surely, in “I had a cup of coffee, then set to work,” the comma ought to be omitted, because it is bad style to separate the verb (“set”) from its subject (“I”) with a comma.

    Alternatively, for clarity: “I had a cup of coffee; then, I set to work.” or “I had a cup of coffee and set to work.”

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