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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Forgotten Comma

Commas?  We're supposed to use them in our writing?  I don't use them because I don't know where they go.  Do we really need them anyway?  Just forget about commas and write!

Do these comments sound familiar?  I know too many writers who say exactly those things about commas, so I thought not only would I strive to improve, but I would give you one of the comma rules to either refresh your memory, or let you practice adding and focusing on one comma rule at a time in your writing.

(This next section, which is included in the parentheses, is for those who always want to know why and who question everything, or for those who want to learn even more; otherwise, skip to the end of the parentheses and to the rule.

When we listen to ordinary speech, we do not hear sounds or words alone; we hear groups of words that we understand as phrases, clauses, or full sentences.  We are able to hear these groups of words because the speaker stresses certain words, inserts pauses where they are needed, and changes pitch of voice according to the sense of the sentence.

When we write a sentence, we show these pauses by using marks of punctuation.  Not all punctuation conforms to the pauses we use in speech; some, like the semicolon, are used in a traditional way to show grammatical relationships that cannot be expressed by the voice alone.  Others, however, match the rise and fall of our voices, called inflection, and the stops, or pauses, we use to separate groups.

When we make a shorter pause (comma), we show a break in thought, as when inserting a nonessential clause or a word or a phrase in apposition.  A comma -- sometimes a dash or parentheses -- indicates this half stop in writing. 

For many years English writing was marked by extremely full and detailed punctuation that now seems excessive to us.  Too much punctuation interferes with easy reading, just as a speaker who continually pauses or stops is hard to understand.  Overpunctuation can be avoided by remembering to use a mark of punctuation for only two reasons:  (1) because meaning demands it, or (2) because conventional usage requires it.  If a sentence is unclear to begin with, punctuation will not clarify it.  If you find yourself struggling with the punctuation of a particular sentence, ask yourself whether the trouble lies in your arrangement of phrases or in your choice of words.  Often you can eliminate the problem by recasting the sentence.)
 
Here's one commonly forgotten comma rule:  Use a comma before and, but, or, nor, for, yet when they join independent clauses.

Examples

The Drama Club will be putting on Macbeth, and I can hardly wait to audition.

Amy was nervous about computer programming, but after two weeks in the class she was doing well.

I had to follow the recipe carefully, for I had never tried to bake a cake before.

*Note the rule applies to compound sentences, not compound verbs, compound subjects, and the like.  In the following examples, commas should not be used.

Examples

My sister was accepted at Emory University but decided to attend the University of Virginia instead.
 (compound verb)

What he is saying and how he is behaving are two totally different things.  (compound subject)

Television crews covered the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 races.  (compound object)

*Note the rule is always correct; however, writers are allowed freedom in its application.  When two independent clauses joined by a conjunction are very short and closely connected in thought, the comma between them may be omitted.

Examples

The phone rang and I answered it.

You can take the bus or you can walk home.

The comma should never be omitted if a sentence would be confusing or unclear without it.

Not Clear 

The teacher called on Maria and John began to answer.  (Most readers would have to go over this sentence twice before realizing that the writer is not saying The teacher called on Maria and John.)

Clear 

The teacher called on Maria, and John began to answer.

If you would like more help in explaining independent clauses (and/or subordinate clauses), let me know and I will be glad to explain.  I do hope this often forgotten comma rule, along with explanations for writers, is helpful.  Now where did I put my pencil?

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