Comma Sense

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The comma is the most used and misused punctuation mark in the English language. The rules for comma usage often include these frustrating words—almost always.

Chicago Manual of Style devotes fifteen pages of small font, single-spaced text to rules and exceptions for comma usage.

Line by Line How to Improve Your Own Writing devotes twenty pages to explaining “the four basic circumstances, apart from dates, addresses, and other special forms,” where commas are needed. “Four basic circumstances,” twenty pages . . . you figure.

Here is an example:

  • A comma is almost always used after an introductory element.

Before signing the contract on their new house, Mr. Smith consulted his attorney.

The exception: If the introductory element is short, the comma is omitted.

  • In the 50s poodle skirts were popular.

We could devote E-Tips to commas for a year and not cover all the rules and exceptions. So what do we do? Use comma sense.

  • Comma sense tells us to insert a comma where we would pause if reading aloud (a good reason to read aloud when self-editing).
  • Comma sense tells us that less is better. Too many commas clutter the page and weary the eye.
  • Comma sense tells us to use a comma where it is needed for clarity.
  • Comma sense tells us to be consistent.

Chicago Manual of Style calls for a comma in front of the conjunction in a series. (This is the style Word Aflame Publications follows.)

  • Our backyard is a haven for rabbits, squirrels, and skunks.

However, some publishers prefer that the writer omit the comma in front of the conjunction.

  • Our backyard is a haven for rabbits, squirrels and skunks.

Which is right? Either one. Make your editor happy; follow the style your publishing house uses. 

For those not convinced that comma sense is enough, Precision A Reference Handbook for Writers by Robert J. Gula lists eight places where comma usage is important.

1. To separate complete thoughts joined by and, or, nor, for, but.

2. After introductory elements.

3. To separate interrupting elements within a sentence. (Here Mr. Gula lists “phrases and clauses, appositives, direct address, interjections, words of emphasis and contrast, parenthetical expressions, dates and places.” So much for keeping it simple.)

4. In a series.

5. After certain transitional words.

6. After certain abbreviations.

7. To separate independent adjectives.

8. In quotations.

A Common Mistake

The comma is the most misused and abused punctuation mark in the English language. Some writers drop commas like confetti on the page.

One of the most common mistakes in comma usage is in a compound-complex sentence to separate a complete thought and an incomplete thought.

  • Nelda went to purchase a computer, but forgot to take her credit card. (incorrect)
  • Nelda went to purchase a computer is a complete thought. But forgot to take her credit card is incomplete.
  • Nelda went to purchase a computer but forgot to take her credit card. (correct)
  • Nelda went to buy a computer, but she forgot to take her credit card. (correct)
  • Even the simplest rules quickly get complicated, because the English language is complicated.

No two people have the same degree of comma sense. So, (comma here?) no matter how closely you follow the rules, your editor will delete some of your well-placed commas and add others.

Just use common sense . . . oops, pardon me, comma sense.

 

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