Some say proper grammar is on its way out. Rapid-fire communications technologies, particularly short forms like texting and Twitter, seem to make the use of complete sentences, let alone correct punctuation, very 20th century.
Despite all acronymic evidence to the contrary, grammar matters -- because writing matters. As a way of communicating with others both within and well beyond one's personal sphere, writing is as good as it gets. It is, at its most basic, how we share our ideas, and in practice it's our most effective method of presenting ourselves to others.
In short, the ability to write effectively is indispensible, especially in this high-tech age of physical distance combined with intellectual intimacy. And writing effectively requires the proper use of words, structures and punctuation: There are those who, on finding an egregiously misplaced comma in the first sentence of a blog post, will assume the author isn't worth reading.
Commas, in fact, are some of the most often misused punctuation marks, and with good reason. The rules that guide when and when not to insert a comma can be a bit clouded in terminology and exceptions. So often, though, it comes down to one question: Is it essential?
In this article, we'll look at 10 common places in American English where people mistakenly insert a comma, find out why it doesn't go there, and learn how to make it right.
First up, a really easy one …
Wrong: In the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz", Dorothy is played by Judy Garland.
Why: The comma is outside the end quotation marks.
Right: In the classic movie "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy is played by Judy Garland.
Why: When a quote requires a comma to set it apart, in this case because it ends a prepositional phrase, that comma always goes to the left of the end quotes. Always. It may seem strange, since the comma isn't technically part of the quote, but it's the rule. Plus, it looks so much tidier.
Next, another straightforward comma no-no …
Wrong: He was born in January, 1990.
Why: There's a comma between the month and the year.
Right: He was born in January 1990.
Why: While month/day/year combinations do take a comma before the year, as soon as you remove the day from the equation, the comma drops away. A unit consisting only of a month and a year needs no comma to divide the elements, perhaps because there aren't two numbers side by side, which can invite confusion.
Next, another one relating to dates …
Wrong: 14 January, 1990
Why: There's a comma between the month and year in a "European style" date.
Right: 14 January 1990
Why: People who have grown up in the United States are used to placing a comma before the year (January 14, 1990). So they're tempted to do the same if they move to the increasingly common European method. In this method, though, in which the day comes first, the month second and the year third (most to least specific), no comma is needed, perhaps because the two numbers are separated by a word, eliminating any chance of numeral confusion.
Next, about suffixes …
Wrong: The president's son was named John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Why: The name suffix "Jr." is preceded by a comma.
Right: The president's son was named John F. Kennedy Jr.
Why: While suffixes like "Jr.," "Sr." and "III" have traditionally been preceded by commas, and some still see this as a gray area, the majority of grammarians now agree the commas shouldn't be there. When an identifying word or phrase has a comma before it, it typically means that word or phrase can be removed without changing the meaning. In the case of these name suffixes, removal results in a different meaning altogether. As such, these essential suffixes are not preceded by commas.
Degree suffixes, on the other hand, like "M.D.," "Ph.D." and "B.A.," do typically take preceding commas.
Next, we'll head further into the essential/nonessential zone …
Wrong: Many men want to be the spy, James Bond.
Why: There's a comma between a noun and its restrictive form of identification.
Right: Many men want to be the spy James Bond.
Why: This has to do entirely with the meaning of the sentence, which is that these men want to be the spy named James Bond, not that the men want to be the spy. Which spy? When you place a comma before an identifier, phrase or clause, you're saying it can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning -- that it's nonessential. In this case, "James Bond" is essential, so there's no comma before it.
Consider the following examples to see how commas can change a sentence's meaning:
Sentence: The children, who couldn't do the math problem, stayed after class for tutoring.
Means: All of the children stayed after class. (The "who couldn't do the math problem" bit is preceded by a comma, so you can remove it without changing the meaning.)
Sentence: The children who couldn't do the math problem stayed after class for tutoring.
Means: Only the children who were having trouble stayed after class.
Next, regarding examples …
Wrong: Some alcoholic beverages, such as, margaritas and daiquiris, can have as many calories as a burger.
Why: There's a comma after "such as."
Right: Some alcohol beverages, such as margaritas and daiquiris, can have as many calories as a burger.
Why: This one's plain and simple: It's never appropriate to put a comma after the transitional phrase "such as" (same with "including"). Other methods of introducing examples, however, such as "for example," "namely" and "for instance," are always followed by commas.
Next, when verbs come in pairs …
Wrong: She hated going to the dentist, and cried the whole way there.
Why: There's a comma between the two components of a compound predicate.
Right: She hated going to the dentist and cried the whole way there.
Why: In a sentence composed of a single subject ("she") and two predicate verbs ("hated" and "cried"), the verbs separated by a conjunction (like "and," "but" or "or"), there is no comma before (or after) the conjunction unless the subject appears a second time. If the subject does also appear in front of the second verb, you have a compound sentence, which requires a comma before the conjunction (She hated going to the dentist,and she cried the whole way there).
Next, while we're on the subject of compound elements …
Wrong: The woman took her son, and her nephew to a course on safe driving.
Why: There's a comma before the conjunction joining compound direct objects.
Right: The woman took her son and her nephew to a course on safe driving.
Why: Just like with compound predicates, two compound objects ("son" and "nephew") joined by a conjunction ("and") do not take a comma before (or after) the conjunction. However, three or more compound direct objects would need commas, since they would constitute a list (The woman took her son, her daughter and her nephew to a course on safe driving).
Next, another compound issue …
Wrong: She hated going to the dentist, and, she cried the whole way there.
Why: There's a comma after a conjunction joining two complete sentences.
Right: She hated going to the dentist, and she cried the whole way there.
Why: While a compound sentence, consisting of two complete subject-verb pairs, does need a comma before the conjunction, it does not take one after the conjunction. A conjunction does, however, take a comma afterward if what immediately follows it is a nonessential clause (She hated going to the dentist, and, although she knew it would do no good, she cried the whole way there).
Next, perhaps the most egregious comma error …
Wrong: I want to go, I want to stay.
Why: There's a comma between two complete sentences, but no conjunction. (Comma splice!)
Right: I want to go. I want to stay.
Also right: I want to go; I want to stay.
Why: When two complete sentences are separated by a conjunction, they are independent clauses and components of a single sentence. When there is no conjunction, however, they are simply complete sentences, and complete sentences are punctuated with periods, not commas (I want to go. I want to stay).
If you want two complete sentences to be independent clauses but don't want to use a conjunction, the correct punctuation mark is the semicolon (I want to go; I want to stay).
Do you know your homonyms? Test your knowledge of the linguistic soundalikes with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
More Great Links
- Comma Usage -- A Few Basic Guidelines. University Writing Center. School of Liberal Arts. Indiana University. May 2008. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.iupui.edu/~uwc/pdf/comma%20usage%20a%20few.pdf
- For Example. My English Teacher. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://www.myenglishteacher.net/forexample.html
- Grinker, Marc A. "Clauses – Restrictive and Nonrestrictive." The Legal Writing Teaching Assistant: The Law Student's Guide to Good Writing. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.kentlaw.edu/academics/lrw/grinker/LwtaClauses__Restrictive_and_Nonrest.htm
- Straus, Jane. "Commas." Grammar Book. (Aug. 29, 2011) http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp
- Such As It Is. Word Wise. (Aug. 30, 2011) http://wordwise.typepad.com/blog/2007/08/such-as-it-is.html
- Writing Tutorials: Commas. University of the District of Columbia. (Sept. 1, 2011) http://hkrauthamer.tripod.com/Comma_rules.html