Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker, and James Thurber, who served as the magazine’s literary backbone for decades, allegedly fought for three week over just one. One argument over its proper use is made august by being named after Oxford University. Even constitutional scholars and jurists have weighed in on its proper use. The comma! Its history is long and sometimes colorful, starting with perhaps its description by Richard Mulcaster (1532-1611) as that “small crooked point, which in writing followeth some small branch of a sentence, and in reading, warneth us to rest here and help our breath a little.”
The description shows up in Mulcaster’s The First Part of the Elementarie (1582), but even then he was late to the party. Apparently this curve-tailed creature of punctuation was invented by Aristophanes of Byzantium, the librarian in Alexandria, Egypt, around 200 B.C. If so, he certainly left his mark on history. You would think by now its proper use and application would be well settled, but debates over when and where to use it continue. I’m going to focus on a few of its primary uses about which writers need to be aware.
My own technique to determine whether a comma is called for involves (A) what sounds right, and (B) the avoidance of confusion. When I write, I constantly read my efforts aloud to test whether what I have put down on paper comes back off clearly to the reader. Usually, words come off the page through the reader’s eyes, but it’s the ears that determine whether the words chosen play well and sound correct, even to one’s eyes.
When you read what you have written aloud, if your sentence(s) clearly and effectively set forth your intended message, they probably are correct. Of course, reading aloud requires some level of emotion. Deliver your sentences in a dead, flat-lined, monotone and punctuation becomes pretty much useless.
Sounding right has a lot to do with inflection—the modulation of intonation or pitch in your voice that injects feeling or emotion into what you have written. Like a measure of music, a sentence can have variations in emphasis, rhythm and pitch, but intonation is what gives life to its words.
The comma is the closest thing we have in the our written language to the symbols in music that guide a musician in how to deliver musical content. They alert us as to where to make changes in intonation that impacts rhythm, and thus, the meaning of a sentence.
Certainly, there are places where the placement of a comma needs to be rule-driven, thus the distinction between “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.” But even there, the sound test works quite nicely, unless you are actually suggesting to your cannibal family what’s for supper.
The primary rules that guide comma usage include the following applications:
1) To separate independent clauses in a compound sentence. Usually we employ a conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, yet) between the clauses, and plug in a comma before it. “I’m inviting everyone to dinner, but you can decide whether to stay for desert.” In lieu of the comma and conjunction, you can sometimes use a semi-colon or even a dash. “I slid sideways to a stop, pointed my bike at the trail and began to peddle.” or “I slid to a sideways stop—pointed my bike at the trail and peddled.”
2) To set off a parenthetical element from the rest of the sentence. Warning: This device is subject to over use. The parenthetical element interjects something that you want the reader to know right now but it’s not absolutely necessary that the reader be immediately informed. You’re interjecting an interruption—an aside—so you want make it clear to the reader that is what you are up to. “Mrs. Henry, my English teacher, uses a bullwhip to keep students in line at lunch time.” The way the sentence is written injects clarification about who Mrs. Henry is and the information, being non-essential, is set it off with commas. But written in another way, the relationship between Mrs. Henry and teaching English are essential to one another and thus does not require a comma. “My English teacher Mrs. Henry loves to come up with ways to avoid having to use commas.”
Of course, if you have two or more English teachers, the comma would be required. Also, the comma is dropped when the additional information is essential and it’s usually essential when you identify which one(s) about the word the added phrase defines or identifies. Note: This is one of those important rules of usage.
To run the risk of being tiresome in order to, hopefully, add additional clarity, the distinction between additional information that requires a comma and additional information that does not can be classified by whether the additional information is restrictive or nonrestrictive. (Notice that “hopefully” in the sentence above was set off by commas because it’s a true interrupter.) If a clause is restrictive, i.e., necessary to define the word being clarified or defined, it needs no commas. If it’s nonrestrictive—you’re merely adding information that is not necessary—it needs commas. A restrictive clause limits, i.e., restricts the meaning of the noun being clarified. It usually involves defining the word modified, so no commas are required. The information being interjected is essential. The test to determine if it’s essential is: if you remove it, will the meaning of the sentence be significantly changed?
When adding information that doesn’t define the noun, the information is not being restrictive but merely adds information, then you set it off with commas. Writers frequently employ nonrestrictive clauses as a way to insert additional information and to break up the potential repetitive or monotonous sound of a cluster of short sentences.
Your litmus test: Nonrestrictive clause requires commas. Restrictive clauses do not.
3) Separating elements in a series. This is probably one of the first rules of punctuation you learned. Over the years, however, there has been a debate with how to handle the last of a list, especially when the list has only three items. For example: “Becoming a better writer involves a commitment to usage, diction, and spelling.” There are proponents who claim this last comma, known as the Oxford comma, is not actually required. I use it to keep the peace with grammarians, and Oxford graduates, who tend to keep score. Note, however, that when the list is adjectives used to describe a noun, the “and” is not used: “It was a typical frigid, snowy, windy Minnesota day.” Go figure!
4) Setting off dialog and quotes. As a wet-behind-the-ears journalism student, I suspected that many of my cohorts preferred paraphrasing to using direct quotes in their stories because you could cramp a finger executing the keyboard machinations required on those old Royal desktop behemoths to insert all the required quotation marks and commas.
Journalists use direct quotations as a way to add credibility to their writing. There was a time in journalism history when you didn’t put quotation marks around what the President said. Apparently, there was an informal conspiracy between newsmen and the White House to leave the President room to wiggle his way out of accountability. We now call it plausible deniability. Politicians have since come up with a better technique. They just lie. “I didn’t say what I said and if I did I didn’t mean it. You misquoted me. You took it out of context.” That’s right up there with the three-pronged defense to a claim that your neighbor’s dog bit you: “First, my dog doesn’t bite. Second, my dog wasn’t home that night. Finally, I don’t own a dog.”
5) Miscellaneous items to keep in mind:
• Introductory elements of two of more words in length are generally set off with a comma. The single-word type can usually join the rest of the sentence unimpeded: “Finally he got up and left the room.” However, if the introductory word might create a misunderstanding, insert the comma: “Sadly, his family didn’t understand why he ran away from home.”
• A comma sets off a conjunction adverb used as a transition: “The clock on the wall indicates I’m right on time. My watch, however, indicates otherwise.”
• Use commas with words of direct address, such as yes/no, the reader’s name, question tags: “Yes, I’ll have water with my bread,” said the prisoner. Mild indicators, such as “well” or “oh,” like commas, too: “Well, it is really good water.”
• The feared and revered “comma splice.” Splice refers to cutting something, usually in two. But grammarians use it to refer to leaving out the conjunction between two independent clauses and letting a comma do all the work. Sometimes a literary device, a true grammarian cringes at the thought, hides in the corner and cries, “Quick! Add a comma!”
• Quotes require attribution, set off with commas. There are three basic styles. (A) Introductory words after the quote: “Blah, blah, blah,” said author Beatrice Jones. (B) Introductory words before the quote: Ms. Jones said, “Blah, blah, blah.” (C) Introductory words somewhere between the beginning and the end to break up a quote. “Hardy har har har is important,” declared Ms. Jones, “but what is really needed is more blah, blah, blah.” (C) A hybrid that includes additional information either in front of a quote, after a quote, or in both places: The writer Beatrice Jones leaned toward the camera and said, “Blah, blah, blah,” then turned and walked out of the room leaving the floor cluttered with unused and tattered quotation marks. “They wanted to charge me with literary littering,” she complained later.”
You can see how the above quotation techniques can add variety and help a writer avoid sounding like a courtroom transcript? Q-A-Q-A . . . They are key tools for the writer, so look at where the commas are placed and follow the obvious rules of use. You don’t need a grammar manual; a well-edited novel will serve as a good guide to quotes, i.e., dialogue.
For the writer, other important basics about commas to remember, include:
To indicate missing words. They are missing because you removed them. The “them” are usually conjunctions. Again, the comma is used to assure clarity. “She went to the movies, I went to play.”
A note is needed here. You can use the relative pronouns “that” and “which” to introduce clarifying information: “This is the car that I want to purchase.” “I put my bike, which has 18 speeds, up for sale.” A few rules associated with “that” and which”: “That” typically refers to people and “which” to things. “Which” usually takes a comma to set off the clause it introduces, and “that” does not. Note the foregoing sample sentences. Argh!
Why know about comma usage? Misuse of the rules regarding commas can have expensive consequences. Take the case of Rogers Communications and Aliant, Inc., up in Canada. Rogers executives were confident they had locked in a long term price for the right to string their cable lines on Aliant’s telephone poles that protected them from price hikes on the long term. Surprised they were when Aliant gave them notice of a hefty rate hike ($2.13 million Canadian dollars) only a few years into the contract. The ensuing dispute hinged on a single comma. At issue was a key clause on page seven that said the agreed upon rate “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”
The problem lay with that second comma. The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission ruled that the second comma allowed for termination of the contract at any time, without cause, upon one-year’s written notice.” The apparently much-desired five-year price protection was erased by the comma between “terms” and “unless.”
Closer to home, the placement of a second comma gave rise to a recent (2007) debate about the intentions of the Founding Fathers in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution regarding the right to bear arms: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The District of Columbia, in an effort to curb crime in the District, adopted strict rules on the ownership of handguns. The resulting uproar by handgun owners and organizations like the National Rifle Association, turned the Supreme Court into a cluster of grammarians. The D.C. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, honed in on the second comma—the one after “state”—to rule that the Amendment endowed each citizen with and individual right to carry a gun regardless if they belonged to a militia, as opposed to the proffered argument that the amendment protected the “collective” right of states to maintain their militias.
According to the court, the second comma divided the amendment into two clauses: one that was “prefatory” (i.e., introductory in nature) and the other “operative.” Wrote Adam Freeman in his 2007 New York Times article, about the kerfuffle, “On this reading, the bit about a well-regulated militia is just preliminary throat clearing; the framers don’t really get down to business until they start talking about ‘the right of the people . . . shall not be infringed.’”
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, and in a decision, much of which was couched in historical interpretation of the Constitution’s linguistics and 18th century writing style, held the right to bear arms remained an individual right, as opposed to a right to carry arms in connection with military service. Mr. Freedman describes the condition of grammar in the days when the Constitution was drafted:
“Refreshing though it is to see punctuation at the center of a national debate, there could scarcely be a worse place to search for the framers’ original intent than their use of commas. In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific. Commas and other marks evolved from a variety of symbols meant to denote pauses in speaking. For centuries, punctuation was a chaotic as individual speech patterns.”
At least my interpretation that the placement of commas in part depends on what sounds right has found acceptance with SCOTUS.
But carefully. They might be loaded.