Commas–More is Not Better

Commas are a mark of punctuation that seems to confuse a lot of people. Here are some common comma issues:
  • Commas may be needed to set off a nonessential description. For instance, when I refer to “my grandson Jasper,” there is no comma between “grandson” and “Jasper” because if I just said “my grandson,” you wouldn’t know which of my three grandsons I was talking about. If I only had one grandson, I could set it off with commas because I could take that name out of the sentence and it wouldn’t change the meaning. If I was saying something about “President of the United States, Barack Obama,” the comma is OK because if you deleted his proper name, you would still know who I was talking about. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence to take it out and the sentence still makes sense, use commas. If you need that language for the sentence to make sense, take the comma(s) out.
  • With dates, the proper rule is to set off the year in complete dates with commas. “He started on February 23, 2011, in his new position.”
  • Just because serial commas are correct does not mean that every time the word “and” appears, it should have a comma in front of it.  
  • A comma’s intent is not to be used each time you would take a breath or pause in reading the writing. While that may be a good guide, it is not a good rule.
  • Some words are always preceded and followed by commas: 
    • i.e. (that is)
    • e.g. (for example)
    • etc.
    • et al. (when it follows two or more names)
Commas have their place, just not necessarily as many places as people seem to want to put them. 


Commas: Serial and transitional and interrupting, oh my!

Commas seem to be a real issue.  Apparently, at some point in elementary or junior high school, teachers mentioned using commas before the word “and.”  It appears to me that the students who grew up to be lawyers took that very literally and every time their sentence has and, they want to put a comma.  “She went swimming, and splashed.”  Commas are not easy and, again, I don’t claim to know all the rules regarding commas.  I read the sentence to myself, taking out nonessential and interrupting phrases, to make sure the sentence still makes sense.  Other than that, I try not to use too many commas as I think they are really overused.  Here are some examples:
Nonessential expressions – commas set off words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.  “Brian Smith, the IT manager, was able to fix the computer.”  When you name a specific person, you don’t need descriptive information to understand the sentence.  One way to determine if the expression is nonessential is whether your voice rises or falls on that part of the sentence when you read it.  If your voice drops, it is nonessential and should be set off by commas.  “We decided, nevertheless, to make plans to go to Spain.”  If you voice rises, it is essential to the sentence and should not be set off.  “We nevertheless decided to make plans to go to Spain.”  If, however, you mean only that you decided to make plans to go to Spain without any outside limitations in the rest of your paragraph, the nevertheless should be set off by commas.
Interrupting elements – commas set off words that break the flow of the sentence.  “He worked a long day, one of many lately, and left the office exhausted.”
Transitional expressions – commas set off expressions that transition the sentence, such as howeverthereforeon the other hand.  “On the other hand, Karen loves sushi as much as I do.”
Afterthoughts – use commas to set off unrelated afterthoughts at the end of a sentence.  “He was late to work again that morning, if I remember correctly.”
Serial commas – when a series of three or more items and the last item is preceded by andor, or nor, a comma goes before the conjunction along with between other items.  “She ate steak, baked potato, steamed broccoli, and salad for dinner last night.” People will argue forever with me on this one.  It is standard practice for some newspapers and magazines to leave the last comma out.  It can really lead to confusion, particularly in the legal field.  Using only two commas in a series could theoretically end up hurting someone.  Consider this example:
John left his estate to Jack, Jill and Joe.  When taken literally, the estate would be divided into two parts – half to Jack and half to Jill and Joe to share.  If John had left his estate to Jack, Jill, and Joe, it is clear that the estate goes to three people.  Our business is extremely literal, so serial commas are important.  I will share a funny (although a tiny bit risque) picture going around Facebook recently on this very topic for the Grammar Giggle this week.
We will share more about commas and move on to semicolons and colons in later issues of this blog.  I have to do much more research to blog intelligently about those topics — there, I admitted it!  We will all learn through this process and for that I thank you.  It is important to constantly learn and I hope to share something worth learning each week.