Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: “Why did you have a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living room’?” And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. “This particular comma,” Thurber explained, “was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
—Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Ah, the comma: misunderstood, underused by some, overused by others, ignored completely by a small minority. It’s a punctuation mark with a dual personality. A peek into The American Heritage College Dictionary tells me that a comma is “…a punctuation mark … used to indicate a separation of ideas or elements within the structure of a sentence.” By that definition, a comma is a nicely functional little squig of a thing.
But the dictionary goes on to say a comma is ALSO “…a pause or separation…” By this further definition, a comma tells us how to hear the sentence in our interior ear–how to read it, if reading aloud. That’s why our British friends refer to it (I believe) as a ‘half-stop’–when reading a comma, you hesitate, but you don’t full-out stop, as you would with a period.
My friend and colleague Hu wrote a wonderfully concise book for freshman college English composition students. In that book, he pointed out seven basic rules for comma usage. I know of other books that have more rules. In fact, a frantic student came to me the first time I taught with Hu’s book, and she said, “This CAN’T be right! In my dev ed class, we had THIRTY-EIGHT comma rules.” Despite her panic, I have never run into a circumstance that Hu’s rules didn’t cover. I’ll share them with you here. If you find any comma-necessary circumstances missing, I hope you’ll let me know!
1. Use a comma and a conjunction to connect two independent clauses (or complete sentences). So…
Bill ate ice cream.
Jolie ate spinach.
Bill ate ice cream, and Jolie ate spinach.
If you don’t want to go to all the effort of adding a conjunction, use a semi-colon in lieu of the comma/and. I think there’s a difference in sound: one is crisp, the other flow-y. It’s fun to mix them up.
2. Use commas in a series. I believe in the serial comma rule, although there’s discussion about this: I think all the words or terms in the series before the conjunction should be followed by a comma. (This was not the way the nuns taught us in the 1960’s. Sorry, Sister Mary Felix. But I believe that final comma adds a needed punch of clarity.) So…
Bill ate ice cream.
Bill ate spinach.
Bill ate cheese.
Bill ate crackers.
Bill ate ice cream, spinach, cheese, and crackers. (Without that final serial comma, we might be tempted to see ‘cheese and crackers’ as one composite item.)
3. If your sentence starts with a clause or phrase of five words or more, use a comma after the clause or phrase. (That sentence actually illustrates its own principle.) Again, this is a debated rule: I’ve seen writer’s handbooks demand the comma after four words, and others mandate it after six. This is a place where I think the ‘How do you hear it?” question comes into play. Do you want your readers to hear a pause?
If so, use the comma.
So…by Hu’s rule, you would write…
In the past few days, I have been pondering punctuation.
But! You’d have a choice in the sentence that follows.
Just lately I’ve been pondering punctuation.
Just lately, I’ve been pondering punctuation.
4. Use commas to surround an appositive, a word or phrase used to define a noun, in a sentence. (See how cleverly that sentence, again, illustrates itself???)
The dog, a canine creature, has been domesticated.
“A canine creature” is an appositive phrase that illuminates the meaning of the noun, dog. The sentence would be just fine without the appositive, although it would not have quite the fullness of meaning. I think of the commas here as being hinges: they could release the appositive, and the sentence would still stand.
5. Much like #4, surround phrases inserted into a sentence, but not necessary to a sentence, with commas. (Strunk and White call these ‘parenthetical phrases.’)
Potato chips, as I’ve told you time and again, are fattening!
Cheryl’s husband, who was married seven times before he met Cheryl, is a reformed individual.
You can see where the phrases are inserted. They certainly make the sentences more interesting–but the sentences are quite complete without them.
6. In direct address, follow a person’s name with a comma.
Meg, I believe you know exactly what I mean when I say this.
Shine, I think you do, too.
7. And then, use commas in those ‘common usage’ areas:
—in dates: January 21, 2016. If the date is embedded in a sentence, follow it with a comma. So…
She went to Biloxi on January 21, 2016, after leaving her grandmother’s house.
–geographically. Here in the States, we’d use commas to separate cities and states; in other climes, they might separate cities and provinces or regions. Like the dates, mid-sentence, follow them with a comma, too.
I was born in Dunkirk, New York, three years after my brother John.
—in adding a qualifier at the end of a sentence: You do, too.
What other rules of comma usage am I forgetting??? (I know there are more.)
These seven rules have stood me, I think, in good stead as I write. I hope they’re helpful to you, too.
Lynne Truss, that wonderful British grammarian, illustrates just why punctuation (and, indeed, the serial comma) is so important in the story that inspired Eats, Shoots and Leaves. If you aren’t familiar with the joke, check it out in this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eats,Shoots%26_Leaves
Happy blogging, my friends!