From the newsroom
Navigating the tricky waters of punctuation can become particularly trying when you are trying to nail down the correct use of the multipurpose comma
I have a confession to make: I do not like the comma. Even after more than a decade spent fixing other people’s language mistakes, this deceptively innocuous-looking punctuation can still trip me up and make me second guess myself.
The comma is an amazingly versatile punctuation mark. For the longest time, we were taught to put in a comma depending on pauses in speech patterns. However, this is not really very effective. There are some people people who will use a dozen commas to a sentence, so it is important to first understand the function of the comma to use it appropriately. For a history lesson on the comma, read Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots and Leaves — The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. It is the most entertaining approach to punctuation that I have ever come across. I’ll skip the story of how the comma came into being and evolved; instead, I’ll delve right into some of its uses and misuses.
Lists, lists, and more lists
Let’s start with the simple one — the serial comma. This is the one that’s employed in lists. So a news copy might read, ‘The police recovered cash, gold and diamond jewellery…’ with a comma separating the items in the list. Did I say simple? Forgive me. How can anything associated with a comma be simple? The sentence above would be fine by most UK English standards but the US style would involve the addition of another comma, before ‘and’. This is known as the Oxford or Harvard comma and much debate rages over its inclusion or exclusion. For instance, those in favour of the Oxford comma would ask, ‘was it gold and diamond jewellery or was it diamond jewellery and gold in some other form’? They claim that the confusion can be easily dealt with by including the Oxford comma: ‘The police recovered cash, gold, and diamond jewellery…’ Of course, this is not the best example to highlight possible confusion in meaning, but you get my drift. So, you can decide which side of the fence you want to occupy for this debate.
The best example of the misuse of the serial comma is the joke that gives Lynne Truss’ book its title. If you haven’t heard it yet, Google ‘’the punctuation joke about the panda’’.
Ladies and gentlemen, an introduction
Introductory elements also deserve a comma. It helps clarify meaning. Introductory elements can be rather literal: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the charming author of this article…’ They can also be background material that helps provide some context: ‘Following the 2005 deluge, she was left with a hunched back.’
He said, she said
For reporters this one is important. Commas are used to introduce a quote or direct speech. Take, for instance, this bit from a newspaper article: ‘The mother of the child said, “My son keeps asking why he cannot go to school.”’
When the comma and conjunction meet
They only do so when there is an independent clause on either side. The comma plus conjunction structure can be replaced with a semicolon (but not a semicolon plus conjunction). However, in either case, remember to check for two independent clauses on either side.
‘Bill cited the Supreme Court directives in the case, and noted its applicability in the current scenario’ is incorrect use of the comma plus conjunction structure. However, ‘Bill cited the Supreme Court directives in the case, and he noted its applicability in the current scenario’ is correct use of the same, although it is a bulkier sentence. I would prefer to retain the previous one minus the comma.
The Internet offers this example of a sign near a playground: ‘Slow children at play’. This is rather politically incorrect and offensive although it was probably intended as a request to ‘Slow (down), (since there are) children at play (ahead)’, with two implied independent clauses on either side of the comma and the implied conjunction.
Newspapers these days often seem to get this usage wrong. For instance, a heading like this is rather common: ‘Suspects’ sketches released, another live bomb found’.
Given headlines are drafted for a particular space, it’s easy to forego the conjunction. No objections there. However, in the absence of a conjunction, these two independent clauses should not be separated by a comma but by a semicolon: ‘Suspects’ sketches released; another live bomb found’.
Parenthetical, my dear Watson!
We know the parentheses better by their street name, brackets. So, parenthetical use would mean using the comma as you would use brackets. The parenthetical comma is used at either ends of a qualifying phrase that can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. However, this can prove tricky. How does one decide if the additional information or qualifier is essential or non-essential? A recent new item reported, ‘Twelve-month-old Max, a sniffer dog, had a tiring day trying to detect a bomb at the tehsildar’s office…’ The writer seems to have decided that ‘a sniffer dog’ is the non-essential element in this sentence, but I am not convinced. Try reading the sentence without the information in the parenthetical commas: ‘Twelve-month-old Max had a tiring day trying to detect a bomb at the tehsildar’s office…’ Even with his amazing sensory abilities, wouldn’t readers worry that Max was a victim of child labour? I would have preferred rewriting to say, ‘Sniffer dog Max, all of 12 months, had a tiring day trying to detect a bomb at the tehsildar’s office…’, because even if you decide to leave out the bit enclosed in the commas, there would be no room for misunderstanding.
This same rule is applied when mentioning the name of the country after the state or the state after the city: ‘It was reported that most of the casualties were from Raigad, Maharashtra, and Kumaon, Uttarakhand.’
Finally, some advice
When I was asked to write this article, I Googled for some assistance to get my thoughts in order and then dusted off some books lying at the back of a little-used shelf. The Complete Grammar by Michael Strumpf has 24 sub-heads under the header ‘Comma’. However, true to my role, I edited out words like ‘appositives’, ‘conjunctive adverbs’, ‘verbals’, and more, not because they are irrelevant but because they require a greater degree of scholarship. I also haven’t dwelt on the comma in dates, numbers and more. Let that be the subject of your further reading.
I will end by stating that if you are writing a news report, the fewer the commas the better. The comma is a much-burdened punctuation mark and the temptation to saddle it with more than its share of work is often irresistible. Since the comma is liable to be misused, it is best to avoid long sentences where the comma is called upon to play different roles. However, reading up on additional functions and uses can always be fun.
WHEN NOT TO USE A COMMA
Non-coordinate adjectives: Coordinate adjectives are, simply put, adjectives that qualify a noun in the same manner. When two or more of these qualify a noun, you can use a comma to separate them but not if the adjectives are not coordinate. The ‘tall, dark building’ is fine but the ‘weak, cricket team’ is not. A trick is to see if you can squeeze in an invisible ‘and’ between the two adjectives. You will discover that the building can be ‘tall and dark’, but it’s awkward when you try ‘weak and cricket’ team.
Essential elements: Clauses that begin with ‘that’ are usually essential so will not be appropriate within parenthetical commas. ‘The office, that was responsible, declined comment’ is not helpful because if you take out the ‘that’ clause, you don’t know which office is being referred to.
Dependent clauses with conjunction: The comma plus conjunction rule applies when you are dealing with two or more independent clauses. A dependent clause that follows a conjunction does not merit a comma. ‘He called his father and apologised for being a disappointment’. Don’t let the conjunction confuse you into adding a comma in this sentence.
Explanations, cross-referenced links, and exercises make this a useful link.
This is the online version of Elements of Style by William Strunk. It has only a few pages on the comma but is a succinct set of dos and don’ts for writers that are relevant even today, nearly a century after the book was first published.
This site has quick rules and extended rules for the comma and also has a section on commas vs semicolons.
The Complete Grammar is also an affordable resource. The author started the National Grammar Hot Line in the US and his book has an added resource in the form of questions posed by grammar users, which are entertaining and enlightening.
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