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!