Top Punctuation Howlers – The Comma

Commas Help Separate You from the Cannibals

What’s so great about the comma? It clears away ambiguity, confusion, and on occasion steers us away from cannibalism. For example:

Martha finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.
Martha finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog.

There are many, many rules for comma usage …

So many that we’re going to break it down to the most common grammatical errors involving the comma.

Prevent confusion and uphold your credibility by using these comma tips:

To Use or Not to Use the Oxford Comma

Commas are used to separate elements in a series. Some authors choose to use the Oxford Comma (a.k.a. the serial comma) and some don’t. The argument for not using the Oxford Comma generally revolves around printed publications, like newspapers, to save on space.

While considered perfectly acceptable in either case, the Oxford Comma is used before a concluding conjunction in a simple series and offers that extra edge of clarity for complex sentences with internal conjunctions. In addition to the example involving Martha above, without the Oxford Comma:

Today’s menu includes eggs and toast, peanut butter and jelly and fish.

In this example, is it [peanut butter and jelly] and [fish] or is it [peanut butter] and [jelly and fish]? The Oxford Comma clears that right up:

Today’s menu includes eggs and toast, peanut butter and jelly, and fish.

Commas in a Series of Equal Adjectives

Equal adjectives (a.k.a. coordinate adjectives) occur when two or more adjectives of a similar nature modify or describe a noun. Commas are used to separate a series of equal adjectives. If the adjectives could be separated by ‘and’ without changing the meaning, the adjectives are considered equal.

Avoid walking down a dark, dangerous street alone.
Avoid walking down a dark and dangerous street alone.

If the last adjective alters the meaning of the noun (a.k.a. cumulative adjective) and creates a noun phrase (e.g. denim pants, red eye, etc.), then no comma is necessary.

The cheap wooden chair exploded when my Great Aunt Sue sat in it.

Commas in Nonrestrictive Clauses

Both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses give additional information about a word or phrase in a sentence. What’s the difference? A restrictive clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence and its intention is straightforward. A nonrestrictive clause can be eliminated from a sentence without changing the sentence’s basic meaning. It all depends on the intention.

Restrictive: The bus driver who was in the accident usually drives my bus.
Nonrestrictive: The bus, which normally arrives on time, is behind schedule.

Don’t Force the Comma Where it Does Not Belong

We’ve heard this farce time and time again: “A good rule of thumb is to use a comma when you feel the sentence needs a pause.” This is far from the truth. One common error is joining two (related) complete sentences, otherwise known as a splice. Here’s an example of this scenario: “I went to the store with Frank, I bought milk.” Ugly, isn’t it? Here are a few fixes for this situation:

  • Period: I went to the store with Frank. I bought milk.
  • Semicolon: I went to the store with Frank; I bought milk.
  • Conjunction: I went to the store with Frank, and I bought milk.

5 Last Chance Quick Comma Tips

  • Name and Hometown: John Smith, Santa Barbara, and Hillary Baker, Ithaca, were called to the podium.
  • Name and Age: John Smith, 42, and Hillary Baker, 38, were called to the podium.
  • Name and Age and Hometown: John Smith, 42, Santa Barbara, was called to the podium.
  • Yes and No: Yes, I can come to the party. No, I will not.
  • In Address: Happy Birthday, Rufus! Let’s eat, Susan. Frank, could you take a look at this?

Use these comma tips to strengthen your writing skills, as well as maintain your credibility as an Expert Author. We will have more punctuation howlers coming up in the next few weeks, so stop by the Blog for the latest and greatest tips to error-free articles.

Did you miss our last edition of Top Punctuation Howlers? Find out more about the apostrophe here!

57 Comments »


1
a-spiritual-journey-of-healing writes:

Thank you so much for this.
I have some queries, if anyone can help.

I have heard that a comma can be used to replace a missing word.

Would the following be acceptable? It is in a poem, so I don’t really want to put another ‘that’ in there.

“Or do you think, as you cannot see it, measure it or prove it that it does not exist?”

Other queries:

To separate an introductory clause. I am guessing there would be no comma after 2010 as it is restrictive clause.

“On a wider scale, in 2010 the number of faith-based charities in the UK alone stood at 30,000.”

Comma or no comma? –
“I had a lovely experience of growing up a Catholic, with many Jewish friends.”

I have a whole list to ask, but I will wait and see if someone is up for answering these.

Many thanks,
Katherine

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 9:44 AM

[Reply]

Heidi writes:

I loved the cannibal example. I had a good laugh this morning. Very effective example.

[Reply]

Sumi Bahuleyan writes:

Comma or no comma? –
“I had a lovely experience of growing up a Catholic, with many Jewish friends.”

I don’t think a comma required here as the sentence is clear without it.

[Reply]

Sumi,

In my opinion no comma is needed. However, I’d be interested to hear the opinions of others on this particular example.

Marc

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

I agree, either growing up, a Catholic, with many Jewish friends; (which emphasises the Catholic) or leave out both commas.

[Reply]

a-spiritual-journey-of-healing writes:

Thank you all for this. To me, without the comma, “Catholic with Jewish friends” sound like a category in its own right. The comma puts the emphasis correctly on Catholic as my faith and ‘Jewish friends’ as an addition to illustrate my multifaith experience that I have previously mentioned. I will ponder.

[Reply]

Party Banners writes:

You know, the examples are just as interesting as the subject matter. Placing a comma could get you into trouble.

[Reply]

2
Edmund Sykes writes:

I am sorry to say that where you use the comma in what you call “conjunction” I disagree that it is necessary before “and”. There is no pause needed “I went to the store with Frank, and I bought milk” unless the visit to the store had a much greater significance. “I went to the store with Frank to keep him company while he shopped for his weekly groceries and, while I was there, I bought milk.”

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 9:53 AM

[Reply]

Kathryn writes:

I totally agree with you Edmund. I was always taught that a comma wasn’t required infront of the word ‘and’.

Regarding your sentence with greater significance. Shouldn’t it read –

“I went to the store with Frank, to keep him company, while he shopped for his weekly groceries and, while I was there, I bought milk.”

Just a thought :)

[Reply]

Vance writes:

I too agree with Edmund that no comma is needed before “and”. I was always taught that placing a comma before “and” is a mistake.

This rule applies in other languages too.

When speaking, most people pause at least slightly before an and which makes a comma before it superfluous.

[Reply]

3
Edmund Sykes writes:

Hi Katherine. I see nothing much wrong in either of your statements. How about “Or do you think, as you cannot see it, measure it(comma) or prove it(comma) that it does not exist?” The Wider scale seems perfect to me, a pause in exactly the right place.

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 9:58 AM

[Reply]

a-spiritual-journey-of-healing writes:

Thank you Edmund. Appreciated.

[Reply]

4
Online Jobs writes:

Great article! This is why I have subscribed to this blog!

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 10:01 AM

[Reply]

5
Martin Helm writes:

Poor punctuation is always good for a laugh.

My favourite (light-hearted) book on this subject is “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss.

As far as I remember, a panda walked into a restaurant, had lunch, shot the waitress and walked out. When asked about this outrageous behaviour, he pointed to a notice which said “Panda – Eats, shoots and leaves”. The comma after the ‘eats’ obviously changed the entire meaning of the statement.

Another one from Miss Truss is the famous telegram “Not getting any better. Come at once” which somehow came out the other end as “Not getting any. Better come at once.”

She’s a good read.

Also interesting is the increasing use nowadays of the ellipsis … particularly in emails. It would add a further option to Frank and his milk (above) as follows:

“I went to the store with Frank … I bought milk”

I don’t recall seeing any rules about the use of the ellipsis – but I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for its occasional use.

A few amusing results of misuse can make punctuation a really fun topic!

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 10:09 AM

[Reply]

CH James writes:

One thing to keep in mind with an ellipsis is that in more formal writing, it is used to condense and contract documents, quotes, and text for clarity and brevity. In an informal setting, like the e-mails you mentioned, it often bridges a meandering thought to its conclusion, conversationally. It’s important is to make sure your readers, in any setting, don’t think you’re doing one when you’re doing the other!

[Reply]

6
Sharon writes:

I personally don’t like the comma before conjunctions but, as with most things, there are certainly exceptions like your peanut butter, jelly and fish example.
Also love to laugh at the way a simple comma can change the meaning of an entire sentence.
There are some great tips in this article, so thanks!

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 10:24 AM

[Reply]

7
Kat Helms writes:

Katherine – I think no comma in your last example.

Martin – I never saw the one about the telegram. That’s hilarious!

It’s not just commas, but I do remember an Encyclopedia Brown story where a boy left a message with his girlfriend’s brother and he mis-punctuated it. The part I remember is:

“I’d like to praise your beauty forever. I can’t stop thinking you are the prettiest girl alive.”

but was written as:

“I’d like to praise your beauty forever. I can’t. Stop thinking you are the prettiest girl alive.”

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 10:30 AM

[Reply]

a-spiritual-journey-of-healing writes:

Thanks Kat. It was a dilemma. But I decided that without the comma it made ‘Catholic with Jewish friends’ sound like a category in its own right.

The emphasis is on letting the reader know I was Catholic, and then including a reference to the multifaith experience.

I suspect both are acceptable.

Thanks again.

[Reply]

8
Edmund Sykes writes:

That’s like the famous WW1 telegram which read “Please send three and fourpence we’re going to a dance” but was meant to read “Please send reinforcements we’re going to advance”.

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 10:44 AM

[Reply]

9
Chris writes:

Liked the email … (note ellipsis ! ) but wanted to know whether there is ever a use of ” its’ “?

I appreciate that “it’s” is an abbreviation of “it is” but what about the possessive … is it ever “its'” ? I am now presuming not so in the case of a pronoun.

Thanks,

Chris

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 11:28 AM

[Reply]

Chris –

I did some quick research and it appears that the word its’ would never be used.

– Marc

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

Its is the same, for an inanimate object, as his or hers is for humans and other animals. For that reason there is never an aphostrophe after its.

[Reply]

10
Randall Magwood writes:

I hate run on sentences. I remember reading an article that didn’t have a comma or period in it. I’m not saying that authors here should learn proper punctuation and go back to english class, but make it easy on the reader with comprehensive and cohesive sentences. Great blog post.

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 11:38 AM

[Reply]

11
priyajit singh writes:

Beautiful article on proper use of comma. There is always new to learn whenever I visit to EzineArticles blog. Great Post!

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 11:41 AM

[Reply]

12
Lance Winslow writes:

Of course, if Martha is really hungry and her family is too rude, and the dog is a hot-dog, who knows, maybe she’s a meat eater?

Comment provided June 22, 2012 at 5:28 PM

[Reply]

13
free bingo writes:

As far as I remember, a panda walked into a restaurant, had lunch, shot the waitress and walked out. When asked about this outrageous behaviour, he pointed to a notice which said “Panda – Eats, shoots and leaves”. The comma after the ‘eats’ obviously changed the entire meaning of the statement.

Another one from Miss Truss is the famous telegram “Not getting any better. Come at once” which somehow came out the other end as “Not getting any. Better come at once.”

Comment provided June 23, 2012 at 2:14 PM

[Reply]

14
Barry Dawson writes:

I normally use an ampersand to separate it from “and” in grouped lists.
Today’s menu includes eggs & toast, peanut butter & jelly and fish.
But if the powers to be say that it is acceptable to add a comma after “and” following the second last item in a list (which I was taught not to do), then your version will be my new way.

Comment provided June 23, 2012 at 5:34 PM

[Reply]

15
Patti Winker writes:

This is probably the best explanation I’ve ever read about the proper use of the comma. It’s easy to understand. Thank you!

Comment provided June 23, 2012 at 10:42 PM

[Reply]

16
Chris writes:

I have been asking this of friends for years and no-one knows.
What is the name for the symbol that is the “@” ?
Ampersands and ellipsis are fine with me but this above question is causing my hair to fall out ! Please help.

Thanks, in anticipation….. Chris

Comment provided June 24, 2012 at 2:17 AM

[Reply]

Martin Helm writes:

The reason your friends don’t know, you don’t know, and I don’t know is simply that it doesn’t have a name.

The ‘at sign’ or ‘at symbol’ is the best I can think of.

Taking up Barry Dawson’s point … the Oxford comma has been a subject of lively debate for many years.

I always use it; many don’t; both ways are acceptable.

Kind regards

Martin

[Reply]

17
asif lone writes:

Great article! Yes, commas are a dilemma for many writers. Thanks for excellent tips.

Comment provided June 24, 2012 at 11:48 AM

[Reply]

18
Elmarie writes:

Please do an article for us on the colon. Maybe it is because English is not my mother tongue but this one always seems to catch me out.
Thank you for a great article. I definitely enjoyed your cannibalism joke.

Comment provided June 24, 2012 at 7:41 PM

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

How can anyone learn English when colon means a punctuation mark and the lower part of the digestive tract?

To me the colon is used to divide a sentence, rather than end it, to break it into two parts. Unlike a semi-colon the following letter is a capital letter.

Peter loved his holidays to Paris: The food was always sublime.

[Reply]

19
Robyn Walter writes:

Another great thought provoking article, thanks. I especially like the example used in WAGS.

Comment provided June 25, 2012 at 1:53 AM

[Reply]

20
Frederick Brown writes:

That was a lovely article. One can never have enough grammar. Editors constantly reminder me of that. Say, are you going to write an article on the proper use of the preposition, the word you’re suppose to avoid ending a sentence with?

Comment provided July 2, 2012 at 8:13 AM

[Reply]

Frederick,

Thanks for that smidgen of humor! Actually, that’s not such a bad idea for a blog post …

Marc

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

Hi Marc

As you like these games, please tell me which is correct of the following:

“I won’t put up with it”
“Up with which I will not put”

Edmund

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

The second is awkward, because the former is idiomatic.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

Perhaps there are some, who would also find helpful an article on how to safely reattach a dangling participle.

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

Thanks, Frederick. I love to debate this so I enjoy your remarks. “Put up with” is a phrase recognised by Collins English Dictionary.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

Well, sure it’s a phrase. It’s a prepositional phrase, although it’s an idiomatic propositional phrase, which means that if one attempts to rearrange the punctuation according to the literal meaning of the words, as in the example given, then the intended idiomatic meaning of phase is likely to be lost, which in this case happens. I only began to comprehend idioms for what they are, after studying foreign languages, before that they were just a curiosity of grammar to me.

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

As you have studied foreign languages, what do you make of “Il a des ides au-dessus de sa gare”?

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

I am unfamiliar with French idioms, although I would expect that to mean something to the effect that someone thinks someone else either is too big for there britches or thinks too highly of himself.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

Such as a working class man, thinking him marrying a noble lady would be tolerated by the nobility at large.

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

Hi Frederick, It means in English “He has ideas above his station” but in French it is gibberish, fist coined by Terrance Rattigan (I think) in 1937. The pun is in “station” which in “gare” means railway station and in the English version means social position.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

That’s hysterical, you have me interpreting an English idiom that has been literally translated into French.

I briefly looked up, Terrance Rattigan. With his background one would imagine that he would have been versed in both French and German, which raises the question, why would he invent a French idiom, instead of just using an existing one?

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

It’s middle class English snobism. Most middle class English spoke French and many middle class French spoke English. To mix the two was called Franglais (just as, now I live in Spain the mixture is called Spanglish) and the joke was meant to be for a small circle who understood both languages.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

Je vois.

[Reply]

Frederick Brown writes:

Well, actually it’s a verbal idiom. To put up with something means to tolerate something, although a literal translation of that phrase into another language would probably lose the meaning of to tolerate something.

In any given language, the idiomatic meanings are included in dictionaries, along with literal meanings, because they are so commonly used. It was kind of an joyful epiphany for me to finally comprehend the difference between those two meanings decades after being out of school.

[Reply]

Edmund –

At first I thought you were trying to be devious, but now I see the point of your original question. Very interesting stuff!

– Marc

[Reply]

Edmund Sykes writes:

Hi Marc. it is so interesting how language evolves and, indeed, changes between different countries. Where I was brought up a ditch was called a bunny; and what Americans call a trunk we call a boot (of a car). So I am very stimulated by the discussions on this blog. Regards. Edmund

[Reply]

21
Leon Noone writes:

G’Day Penny,
You remind me of an excellent piece of advice from Robert Gunning, creator of the Fog Index. Gunning recommended that we go through our work and place a full stop before every “And” and “But.”

It sure as hell gets rid of unnecessary commas!

I keep telling my clients that the purpose of communication is to convey meaning. Words are simply the vehicles we use. And grammar is the lubricant that oils the wheels.

Then again; we Aussies talk funny.

Best Wishes
Leon

Comment provided July 7, 2012 at 3:09 PM

[Reply]

22
Phillip Khan-Panni writes:

Serial comma: it is generally assumed that the comma is left out before the conjunction at the end of a list, as in “I bought some eggs, jam, cereal and bread.”

However, the comma is necessary when the list does not consist if related items, as in “I visited the hospital, spoke to the consultant, saw my friend, and then went home.”

Finally, a word of advice:

Practise safe text. Use commas.

Comment provided July 13, 2012 at 12:15 PM

[Reply]

23
lisa writes:

Great article. It’s always amazing that what looks right to me can sometimes be misinterpreted.
Another use of the Oxford comma
Let’s eat Gramma!
Let’s eat, Gramma!
:)
Thanks for posting and keeping us on track!

Comment provided July 13, 2012 at 6:51 PM

[Reply]

24
Kelly Provost writes:

That was a great article! I’m going to have to check in on this blog more often, why, did a lot of day dreaming in English class – lol.
Seriously, great stuff!

Comment provided July 15, 2012 at 1:33 AM

[Reply]

25
khaled writes:

Today’s menu includes eggs, jelly, and fish. is dis sentence right? because i am already separating jelly and fish thr and so why i need to put comma as well, i.e. jelly, and fish? pls let me know. feeling basic problem about dis.

Comment provided March 4, 2013 at 9:11 AM

[Reply]

Edmund writes:

Hi Khaled, if you read above you will find that there are two different opinions about whether to use a comma before the word “and”. Personally, I don’t think it is correct but Penny, who wrote the article, obviously does think so. She was trying to emphasise that “peanut butter and jelly” was a single menu choice. I think it is slightly more elegant to use a semi-colon “;” in a list of items to distinguish between them and this also obviates the need for the final “and”. However, Penny will tell me off for putting the dash between semi and colon.

[Reply]

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Please read our comment policy before commenting.