Commas

For you, dear Plimco, I will try to address the comma rule.  I must say, though, that this is difficult for me because I love commas.  I throw them in whenever I think two clauses need a tiny break between them.

That, I think, is the comma’s main job–to give your eye a chance to rest before scurrying down the rest of the sentence.

So, you can use a comma between clauses: I saw Mrs. Mustard in the library with a candlestick, but I was too afraid to scream.

You can use a pair of commas to set off part of a sentence that’s less important than the rest.

Say Don Coyote burst into the room, yelling, “Which way did that girl go with my tamales?”

We could say, “Don Coyote, the girl, who was wearing blue shoes, went that way.” and it would be fine to set “who was wearing blue shoes” off with commas, because that’s just added information.  He’ll still be able to find the girl whether or not she has blue shoes on.

But say that Exador burst into the room and said, “Did you see that stripper who ran off with all my money?” and say that we’d actually seen two women in g-strings come through, each with a load of cash.

Then we would say, “The girl who was wearing the gold g-string is upstairs.”  See, if we take out the clause “who was wearing the gold g-string,” Exador loses vital information that would let him discern which woman he should chase.

You can also use commas to separate items in a series.  I went on a walk, had some breakfast, and typed on the computer.

But you must never use a comma to break up two complete thoughts. 

Let’s use this example:

I cannot leave.  I’m having your baby.

Right now, with a period separating them, they seem like two very distinct thoughts.  I cannot leave.  Also, I am having your baby.

But say that I want you to get that I cannot leave you because I’m having your baby.  I may feel that the period is too strong a break between them, that those two clauses need to be joined by something softer, more delicate.

I cannot leave, I’m having your baby.

WRONG

No, for sentences whose meanings are more closely linked than could be implied by a period and yet are too independent for a comma (note that, in order to make the sentence above correct, I could add a conjunction of some sort–but, and, if, therefore, etc.), I must reach for that rarest of punctuation mark: the semicolon.

I cannot leave; I’m having your baby.

Tada!  Oh, semicolon, I love you.  Have my babies.  No, wait, I’ll have yours.  Depending on the font size, I should be able to squirt out your kids no problem. 

13 thoughts on “Commas

  1. So, it seems much is left up to choice with regard to the comma, no? There’s not necessarily a correct and incorrect, only the whim of import decided on by the author? That’s wacky. I had no idea. I did think, though, that items in a series were not supposed to have that extra comma before the “and”. Where did I get that? For example:
    Here on my desk I have a collection of plastic frogs, ponies and dinosaurs.
    Is that incorrect? Should it read, instead:
    Here on my desk I have a collection of plastic frogs, ponies, and dinosaurs.
    Or is that up to the author’s whim?
    And semi-colons scare the hell out of me. You are far more brave than I. (See? Could I have used a semi-colon betwixt those two guys right there just then? Probably not. Or maybe? Oh and here we are back to the fragments. Sigh.)

  2. Braver. Far braver.
    Oh and would you look at that? It seems I also need a lesson on the colon.
    Mother fucker.
    Can we just say it’s all poetry and call it a day?

  3. The final comma in a series (I’ve heard it called the ‘Harvard comma’) is optional. Otherwise, it’s not a case of commas being optional; it’s a case of commas being right or wrong depending on what meaning is supposed to be conveyed.

  4. My use of commas owes a lot to my voice training. I know how I am supposed to use them (and can conform to standard usage in my professional work), but in casual practice, I think of commas as breathmarks or beats of rhythm in the song of a sentence.

  5. Hooray for punctuation lessons! I was just teaching my composition kids about semi-colons the other day. And, B, you’re right about everything in here except one thing that took me forever to learn. If you combine two independent thoughts with and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so, and other coordinating conjunctions like that, then, yes, you would just use a comma. But if you combine them with conjunctive adverbs like however, therefore, moreover, etc., then it takes a semi-colon. E.g., “I am having your baby; however, I am going to name it after Aunt B.” Just putting a comma there is known as a “comma splice.” I didn’t learn that rule until way into my undergrad English major.

  6. When I was in grammar school, what NM refers to as the “Harvard comma” was indeed the last comma in the series, Plimco. The deletion of the comma changes the construction of the groups from a series consisting of plastic frogs, ponies, and dinosaurs (three groups) to two groups, one of which consists of plastic frogs, and the other group consisting of ponies and dinosaurs (plasticity debatable).

    Still, I’d rather see my beloved Harvard comma banished than deal with writers who sprinkle commas blithely throughout the text, like raisins throughout oatmeal cookies. I have a corset-making book for which I paid good cash money, and I can’t bear to read it; the author has scattered commas far and wide, and inserted them where they make no sense whatsoever. He has endeavored to make up for it, however, by leaving out the necessary ones. The sentences look as if they’re having seizures.

  7. Dr. J, I was always taught that in proper formal writing one should not begin a sentence or clause with “however” but should substitute “nevertheless”. Is this not correct? I suppose that it is intended to spare readers from confusion between “However, I did it, and I’m glad I did” and “However I did it, it’s no business of yours.” I always figured that readers could figure out the difference for themselves. Nevertheless, it was drummed into my head so hard that I now observe the rule except when noticing that I’m breaking it.

  8. Oh the ponies and dinosaurs are most certainly plastic as well. Goodness me! I would hate to give the wrong impression.
    Now, be nice and pass me a slice of comma splice.
    My hair has lice.
    Punctuation vice.

  9. Having lived in England for a while, I was struck by how very different punctuation rules are. Really they are little more than agreed conventions. They also change over time.

    Don’t get me started on where punctuation goes in quotations…

  10. The trend is away from using so many commas, employing them mainly to prevent confusion for the reader and for stylistic pause and rest for the eye. But I love a good comma and fought over serial commas when I worked for newspapers. Depending on your outlet, you may have to be a comma chameleon.

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