From My Desk to Yours – 11th Edition

By: Penny, EzineArticles Managing Editor

Putting the Comma in Its Place

The comma is one of the most vexing punctuation marks in the English language. Writers either put it where it doesn’t belong or leave it out where it’s needed.

Take the title of this book: “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” by Lynne Truss (subtitled “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” which isn’t nearly as frightening as it sounds).

The title refers to a sentence describing the dining habits of pandas. The correct version is “The panda eats shoots and leaves.” The errant comma makes it sound as if gun-slinging pandas are walking out of the world’s restaurants without paying the bill.

Two Rules for Comma Use

If you’re less than secure about where to put commas in your sentences, or if you forgot or never learned how to use them back in grade school, here are two of the rules that cover situations we see often when reviewing articles for EzineArticles:

  1. When listing a series of adjectives or nouns, use commas to separate the individual elements.

    This sounds more confusing than it really is. Here are two possible uses:

    • “I thought ‘Paranormal Activity’ was funny, scary and exciting.”
    • “I thought ‘Paranormal Activity’ was funny, scary, and exciting.”

    Both sentences say the same thing. However, the first version, which eliminates the comma before the word “and,” is the preferred version, according to the Associated Press style book. The AP stylebook is the accepted rulebook for most newspapers and magazines and is designed to make reading print as easy as possible.

  2. To separate adjectives of equal rank.
     

    Many people think that if you have two adjectives side by side in a sentence, you always have to separate them with a comma. Apply this rule only when both adjectives describe, or modify, the same noun. If the first adjective modifies the second adjective instead of the noun, then you need the comma.

    An example using an actual EzineArticles entry in our database: “Good dental clinics are a boon to everyone.”

    Here, “good” modifies “dental” by distinguishing good dental clinics from bad dental clinics. No comma needed.

    Had the sentence been “Good, affordable clinics are a boon to everyone,” you should see that both “good” and “affordable” modify “clinics.” The comma is necessary for clarity.

    The “and” trick: Try substituting “and” for the comma. If that changes the sentence meaning, you don’t need the comma. If it still makes sense, you need the comma. Try it on the first example sentence above to see why you really don’t need a second comma.

We’ll post more tips and tricks for correct comma use (and semi-colons, colons, brackets and more) in future blog posts. Got a tough punctuation question? Add it to the comments section and we’ll answer it as soon as we can.

14 Comments »


1
Mike Bond writes:

The panda bit’s hilarious! Good points, though. Should I have put a comma there? I look forward to your tips on colons and semi-colons. I’m never quite sure about them,
Many thanks,
Mike

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 8:55 AM

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2
Webwordslinger writes:

This tripped me up for years. Now, I never use the serial comma as a matter of style and it simplifies everything – format is consistent throughout.

Related (somewhat) is the two-word adjective, i.e., two-word. When two adjectives work together to modify a noun, do you always use the hyphen or will a comma suffice, for example: the two, word adjective?

Doesn’t sound right IMHO, and might be confusing to the reader.

Your thoughts? Thanks for tackling a grammar issue. Most of us shy away from these topics but somebody’s got to do it.

Thanks,
Paul

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 9:00 AM

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3

Nice job. Thanks for the observation.

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 9:26 AM

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4
Fran Aslam writes:

Very intresting subject. How many people are trying to save the value of real English and if puncutations in British and American English are the same? Are we trying to isolate ourselves by speaking and writing only American English?

I do not have an answer to all this. But all this came to my mind when I read about comma.

I will like to know more. It is a good subject to write in “Article Writing” niche.

I have been eliminating my commas because It is better not to write it, then to be picked out for using it wrong.

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 9:55 AM

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Fran,

As an international website, this is an issue we struggle with constantly … what exactly is “Standard English?”

A quick search of that phrase on Wikipedia will tell you that there is no such thing. There are myriad versions of English spread throughout the world and they’re all considered equally valid.

We address it somewhat in this post: http://blog.EzineArticles.com/2009/06/conquer-spelling-and-grammar-challenges.html

The bottom line for us is that, since we’re a US-based company, we will except both the UK and American versions of English in our articles. Those two are neither right nor wrong, but unfortunately we have to draw the line somewhere.

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Fran Aslam writes:

Marc:

I do love specializing as an American, as I am here for more than 40 years.

But I learned Oxford English in school, today when I am very mature, and experience should have made me more than perfect because of being a teacher, I will not be very wrong to call me confused. Sometimes, when I write date, I still get confused, I have to revise the writing date procedure in my mind and then write it.

Marc I do understand the position of EzineArticles, this is a globally recognized American Based on line writers heaven. It has to have American English. But how can you do this when our teachers in the schools can not teach this standard English Grammar and punctuations. Very few in younger generations know it. I personally believe in American Standards.

Maybe EzineArticles should have a site where we enforce American Grammar and punctuations and formatting details to learn and revise.

fran.thearticlelady

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5
Ian Patterson writes:

When I was still in Primary school in England, we were taught that an And, a But and a Comma indicated where we naturally take a breath in our speech.

Even if you do not know your nouns from your verbs, take time to read what you have written and you will know where to put the comma.

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 10:46 AM

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6
Leon Noone writes:

G’day Penny,
I really enjoy you reminders about, dare I say it, the judicious use of grammar. And “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” is both instructive and entertaining. It also contains an excellent explanation of the use of the apostrophe.

Back in the 70s, I first discovered “The Technique Of Clear Writing” by Robert Gunning. One of his rules was that it was OK to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’ or ‘but.’

In fact, he suggested that a simple way to make your writing more cogent, lucid and readable, was to go through it and place a full stop before every ‘and’ and ‘but.’

Of course, that was at a time when most writers knew what a conjunction was!

Anyway……make sure you have fun.

Regards

Leon

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 1:59 PM

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7
Libbie writes:

Glad to see you (and the AP) endorse the old way of using commas in lists — no comma before the “and.” My septugenarian husband and I have been fighting that battle for years. It’s definitely age-related.

Comment provided April 16, 2010 at 4:40 PM

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I think none can use a comma before an ‘and’ – i thinks it’s called the oxford comma.

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8
Shirley Bass writes:

Good subject Penny.

I have the book, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.”

We lost our home to fire on March 14th and something’s, such as my EzineArticles Expert Author Mug, computer, etc. was lost, but other things, such as books were left in place, untouched by fire…just overcome with the scent of smoke.

Anyway, as I looked at my books, I set this particular book aside and felt happy that it had survived. As we inventoried all surviving items, during this past month, I left is to the side, so I can refer to it when needed.

Something good always comes from something less desirable. And this particular book is a good thing.

Shirley

Comment provided April 17, 2010 at 11:55 AM

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9

Commas are also used to separate 2 or more independent clauses joined either by a comma and a coordinating conjunction or by a semi-colon.

E.g: Many astronomers believe in extraterrestrial life, but others disagree.

Explanation of the example: We have two independent clauses (sentences that have a subject and a verb and can stand alone). In this case ‘ Many astronomers believe in extraterrestrial life’ is one sentence and ‘astronomers’ is the subject and ‘believe’ is the verb. In the 2nd clause i.e. others disagree the word ‘others’ is the subject and ‘disagree’ is the verb. Both are independent clauses joint by a coordinating conjunction ‘but’ and a comma.

Tip: ensure that such sentences are joined with a comma and a coordinating conjunctions. The 7 coordinating conjunctions are FANBOYS where F stands for for, a for and, n for nor, b for but, o for or, y for yet, and s for so. If you don’t wish to use a coordinating conjunction use a semi-colon (;) instead of a comma.

Hope this helps. Cheers!

Comment provided April 19, 2010 at 6:43 AM

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By the way, that’s the rule for creating compound sentences.

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10
Alejandro Guevara Onofre writes:

Penny
Many thanks for this advice.
Alejandro

Comment provided April 19, 2010 at 11:01 AM

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