Commas: Now you see them; now you don’t
August 8, 2014
By Kathy Fox
Writing With Precision
Do you like magic? Commas are the magicians of our language. They can transform the meaning of a sentence.
My co-workers and I collect jokes about grammar. We have one that says, “Let’s eat Grandma” at the top, above a drawing of an old woman eating pie. Below, it says, “Let’s eat, Grandma” followed by “Punctuation saves lives.” It’s quirky and morbid but is a great illustration of the importance of commas. They prevent cannibalism.
Everyone knows what a period is for. But add a tiny curlicue, and suddenly it becomes the huge, intimidating monster known as the comma, and panic engulfs the writer.
There are two types of “commaphobes.” When confronted by a naked sentence, some people insert too many commas (framing words they want to emphasize) but others don’t use enough (when in doubt, pretend commas don’t exist).
It helps to think of the comma as a cue to pause briefly as you read, in the very places you would pause if you were speaking. When you read a sentence in the proper cadence, it’s easier to understand. I can’t cover every comma rule in one column, but here are the basics:
Commas separate elements of dates or places: “I used to live in Louisville, KY.” They set off dates or places used in sentences: “March 3, 2013, is their anniversary.”
A comma usually should follow an introductory word or phrase: “By the way, a semicolon is not a more formal version of the comma.”
Commas are used after conditional clauses: “If you aren’t sure which punctuation to use, then write to me.” When the conditional clause is placed at the end of the sentence, no comma is needed: “Write to me if you have questions.”
They set off conjunctive adverbs used in the middle of a sentence: “The semicolon is, however, one of my favorite punctuation marks.” When conjunctive adverbs are used to join two clauses, place a semicolon before and a comma after: “Use of the semicolon is tricky; however, that is a topic for another day.”
Commas separate two independent clauses (two short sentences) joined by a conjunction: “My daughter moved out of the house, but she only lives two blocks away.” The comma is omitted when the subject of the second clause is the same as the first and is understood rather than stated: “Take your stuff and store it in your own garage.”
Commas separate items in a list: “My niece, Julie, owns six dogs: Ollie, Sophie, Tucker, Buddy, Chloe and Letti.” Whether to use a comma between the second-to-last item and the “and” is a matter of style. In professional writing it’s usually omitted, so if you’re confused because your elementary school teacher whacked your knuckles with a ruler when you didn’t use a comma before the “and,” I’m sorry, but you endured that in vain.
However, always use a comma before “and” when not using one would cause confusion: “Her dogs are spotted, brindle, brown, gray, tan and black and white.” Without that final comma, there might be a tan dog and a black and white dog, or there might be a tan and black dog and a white dog.
Commas separate adjectives that modify the same noun: “he’s a small, brown dog.” A comma is not used when one adjective modifies another: “he’s a light brown dog.” Sometimes you have a bit of each: “he’s a small, light brown dog.”
Finally, commas set off nonessential elements, asides and additional information. These subordinate elements of the sentence can be a word, phrase or clause. Nonessential means it’s not necessary to the sentence as a whole—it could be left out without changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence. For example, “My favorite color, yellow, is popular this year.” My main point is that my favorite color is popular. The specific color doesn’t change that; it just adds more information. Removing the commas would not magically transform the color into essential information, either. It would still be a detail, in an incorrectly punctuated sentence. Even comma magic has its limits. © Columbia Daily Tribune 2014
Kathy Fox is a longtime resident of Columbia, MO, an editor by trade, who writes for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where this column first appeared. She is a survivor of raising three kids and three dogs by choice. Send your grammar questions or pet peeves to firstname.lastname@example.org.