logo

Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess: Commas

By Diane Sandford, Published on March 15, 2004
Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office
of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLPShe has many years of experience
in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

The comma is the least emphatic, most humble, and yet most utilitarian of punctuation marks. Nevertheless, the poor comma is governed by so many rules that we despair of remembering them all. Garner’s Modern American Usage identifies nine uses for the comma, most of which are rooted in logic and common sense.

Introductory Phrases

As everyone knows, the comma indicates a pause and helps the reader avoid misreadings or misunderstandings in text.

Example:  When I bake my dog begs for scraps.

 

Better:  When I bake, my dog begs for scraps.

The comma makes the intent of the author clear, and the reader moves along without distraction. If you’re not sure whether to use a comma, read the sentence aloud. Insert a comma where you would pause naturally.

Serial Comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard Comma)

Use a comma before the final conjunctive (and, or, but) in a list: one, two, or three cars. Even without the final (serial) comma, the sentence is grammatically correct. Newspapers tend to omit the serial comma, probably due to space restrictions. So why make a big deal about the serial comma? The overwhelming general consensus among the grammar police is that the serial comma is required in formal and business writing. Believe it or not, this topic is an emotional issue for some people. The late Wilson Follett, for example, devoted four pages in defense of the serial comma. Incidentally, you may omit the conjunctive when the members of the series duplicate the meaning (i.e., coordinate adjectives): He was lost, beaten, vanquished. Above all, be consistent in your use.

Coordinating Conjunctions

Does the following sentence need a comma?

Robert spoke to the jury [,] but was ineffective.

Commas are used before conjunctions (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet) that join two complete sentences (independent clauses). But the verbal phrases “spoke to the jury” and “was ineffective” both apply to the same subject and, consequently, should not be separated by a comma. You wouldn’t use a comma in the sentence “Robert spoke and sang” for the same reason. However, you would need a comma in “Robert spoke, and then he sang,” because you have two complete sentences. There are so many rules of grammar that only an expert can come close to knowing all of them.

Dates, Addresses, and Professional Titles

Use commas with dates to separate the day from the year - e.g., April 1, 2004. If the day is omitted, then omit the comma (April 2004). If the date is inverted (1 April 2004), then no commas are necessary.

Use commas to separate a city from a state.

Example: John lives in Grand Haven, Michigan.

Example: Larry was raised in Bowie, Maryland, and attended the University of Maryland.

Separate a title following a name with a pair of commas.

Example: Susan Jones, M.D., will be the guest speaker at the conference.

Comma Splice

Beware the comma splice (also known as a comma fault, run-on sentence, comma blunder, or comma error). This grammatical nightmare is defined as two independent clauses that have been joined incorrectly.

Example: The penalty was small, it mandated less than a thousand dollar fine.

Correct:  The penalty was small; it mandated less than a thousand dollar fine.

The penalty was small, and it mandated less than a thousand dollar fine.

The penalty was small. It mandated less than a thousand dollar fine.

The Longman Guide to English Usage (1988) notes that “experienced writers sometimes use commas alone for literary effect in linking a series of (often three) parallel sentences; a well-known example is I came, I saw, I conquered.” Many authors are guilty of using comma splices (e.g., John Updike, E.B. White, William Faulkner) for literary effect. But in formal writing, the comma splice is the mark of a careless writer. This kind of error in formal writing can generate uncomplimentary remarks. Moral: Check your writing.

Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Phrases

Nonrestrictive phrases (parenthetical remarks) are set aside by commas.

Example:  My sister, Kathy, visited me today.

[I have only one sister; her name is not essential in this sentence.]

Example My sister Kathy visited me today after visiting my sister Alice.

[I have two sisters, so their names are essential to the meaning of the sentence.]

Transitional Elements

Use commas to mark the beginning and end of a parenthetical word or phrase.

Example:  I am sure, however, that you understand my point.

Example:  After leaving Jones Smith, a prestigious New York law firm, she joined an investment banking concern.

Do not omit the second comma unless a semicolon or period ends the thought for you. The missing comma prompted editor Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation) to comment: “Sensitive people trained to listen for the second comma find themselves quite stranded by that kind of thing. They feel cheated and giddy. In very bad cases, they fall over.“

Direct Quotations

Use commas to set off direct quotations:

Example:  He said, “You look lovely tonight, Scarlett.”

Terms of Direct Address, Interjections, Yes and No

Use commas to set off nouns of direct address, the responses yes and no, and interjections.

Example:  The answer, ladies and gentleman, is that John is the best candidate.

Example:  Excuse me, sir, but she was here first.

Example:  Egad, what do you mean?

Example:  Yes, I am guilty of securities fraud.

Numbers

The general rule of thumb is to use commas to separate numbers with more than four digits. If the number is four digits long, a comma is optional.

Example:  4,327 [or 4327]

Example:  43,270

Example:  432,700

Many sources correctly observe that the modern author uses fewer punctuation marks than the grammar books suggest. Yes and no. Informal writing is writing for effect. One-word sentences, bizarre capitalization, and oddball punctuation can all be used with positive effect. YIKES!!! But business writing and formal writing are both more impressive when the rules are followed. These are situations when you are trying to communicate facts, opinions, and ideas, not emotions. If you are a formal writer, then you must follow the rules 99 times out of 100. It is little wonder that grammar gurus take pride in their knowledge. It is one of the keys to the kingdom.

Exit Question

Consider this famous line from Bret Harte (1869): “. . . beneath the snow lay he who as at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.” By modern standards, does the phrase “yet the weakest” need commas?

The phrase “and yet the weakest” seems restrictive (no commas), but it follows a restrictive phrase and thus becomes nonrestrictive (commas). The phrase also applies to the same subject as the previous phrase (no commas - e.g., he was the strongest and the weakest). The author has two acceptable choices. Harte chose no commas in1869. Today, I would have added commas for emphasis.

If you’re interested in further discussion of the uses and abuses of the comma, I recommend Lapsing Into a Comma (Bill Walsh); A Writer’s Reference (Diana Hacker); Eats, Shoots and Leaves (Lynne Truss); and Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.  Please let me know.