Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.
What is a comma? What does it do?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’
The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.
One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.
Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it into two parts. The second part will post on July 3rd, so watch this space!
The Listing Comma
(Standard) = You know Bob, Sue and Greg? They came to visit me.
(Oxford) = You know Bob, Sue, and Greg? They came to visit me.
The Oxford (serial) comma is the most widely used form for any series of words or lists:
Rule: Use a comma to separate each item in a series; a series is a group of three or more items having the same function and form in a sentence.
- We bought apples, peaches, and bananas today. (series of words)
Mary promised that she would be a good girl, that she would not bite her brother, and that she would not climb onto the television. (series of clauses)
The instructor looked through his briefcase, through his desk, and around the office for the lost grade book. (series of phrases)
Using a serial (Oxford) comma can be useful for making your meaning clearer, as in:
My favourite opera composers are Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Gilbert and Sullivan. (In this example, you can see how important that little punctuation mark after Mozart is, as it allows us to group ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ separately in the list as a single entity.)
The Introductory Comma
Rule: Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase. A comma tells readers that the introductory clause or phrase has come to a close and that the main part of the sentence is about to begin.
- When Evan was ready to iron, his cat tripped on the cord.
Near a small stream at the bottom of the canyon, park rangers discovered a gold mine.
We also have introductory words: Outside, the sun shone brightly. (Without the comma, the opening sentence would read, ‘Outside the sun …’.) Today, we shall go to the cinema. However, that wasn’t the case.
The Joining Comma
The joining comma is only slightly different from the listing comma. We can use a comma to join independent clauses (two complete thoughts/sentences) , and we must follow it with a suitable connecting word. The connecting words we can use in this way are and, or, but, while, yet, etc.
Rule: Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet, so, or, nor, for) when it joins two complete ideas (independent clauses).
- He walked down the street, and then he turned the corner.
You can go shopping with me, or you can go to a movie alone.
Norway has applied to join the EC, and Sweden is expected to do the same.
You must hand in your essay by Friday, or you will receive a mark of zero.
You cannot join two sentences with a comma unless you also use one of these connecting words. All of the following examples are, therefore, wrong:
- Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest countries, its annual income is only $80 per person.
The British are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, the Dutch are famously good at it.
The proposal to introduce rock music to Radio 3 has caused an outcry, angry letters have been pouring into the BBC.
Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, the following year he lost in the final to McEnroe.
Joining two complete sentences with a comma in this way makes for one of the commonest of all punctuation errors, but one of the easiest to avoid if you pay a little attention to what you’re writing. Either you must follow the comma with one of the connecting words listed above, or you must replace the comma with a semicolon.
Note also that you cannot precede most other connecting words with a joining comma. For example, the connecting words however, therefore, hence, consequently, nevertheless, and thus cannot be used after a joining comma. Hence the following examples are also wrong:
- Saturn was long thought to be the only ringed planet, however, this is now known not to be the case.
Two members of the expedition were too ill to continue, nevertheless the others decided to press on.
Liverpool are five points behind the leaders, therefore they must win both their remaining games.
Sentences like these once again require, not a comma, but a semicolon. As so:
1. Saturn was long thought to be the only ringed planet; however, this is now known not to be the case.
- Two members of the expedition were too ill to continue; nevertheless the others decided to press on.
*3. Liverpool are five points behind the leaders; therefore they must win both their remaining games.
That’s it for today, and we’ll come back next time to cover the Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.