I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.
Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.
“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)
Leaving out the Comma before “Including”
The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.
In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”
To say it another way, all of the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.
This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.
“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”
In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:
“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”
Now let’s go back to the original example.
“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”
I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.
Adding the Comma before “Including”
If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”
So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.
This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.
“I enjoy making of deserts, including chocolate pudding.”
In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”
Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.
“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”
I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.
What’s the Point of This?
When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.
One question I often receive is whether or not to use a comma with who. Let’s look at two examples, one with a comma and one without, and learn when to use the comma with who. Both examples come from the Associated Press, which generally has correct punctuation in its news stories.
Example 1: No Comma with Who
John Fenton Wheeler, an Associated Press foreign correspondent who was the last U.S. reporter expelled from Cold War-era Cuba, has died. (http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2013/Former-AP-correspondent-Wheeler-dies-at-88)
In this example, the clause beginning with who tells the reader which correspondent. Here, “an Associated Press foreign correspondent” could refer to many people, a group of people. To tell the reader which person in this group the article is about, the who clause is necessary information.
The “official” name for the clause is restrictive clause. The clause restricts our attention from the group of people to just one person. It provides necessary information and cannot be separated from the word, correspondent, that it describes. As such, the writer correctly did not put a comma before who.
This sentence follows Zen Comma Rule V: Dont use commas to separate restrictive phrases and clauses begining with who.
Example 2: Comma with Who
Dave O’Hara, who covered Boston sports greats from Ted Williams to Larry Bird during a 50-year career with The Associated Press, died Wednesday. (http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2013/Former-AP-Boston-sports-editor-OHara-dies)
In this example, the entire clause beginning with who is separated from the rest of the sentence with commas. We see the comma before who and the comma after Press. Here, the entire clause provides additional description of Dave O’Hara. The information, while interesting, is not necessary to tell the reader which person is being described.
The “official” name for the clause is non-restrictive clause. The descriptive clause beginning with who does not restrict the readers’ attention from a group of people to just one person. In fact, it can’t: Dave O’Hara is already just one person. For this reason, the information is not necessary for the reader to know whom the article is describing. The clause can be removed, and the readers will still understand the message of the sentence, including the person about whom the writer is writing. As such, the writer correctly used a comma before who and another after Press, thus separating the clause from the rest of the sentence.
This sentence follows Zen Comma Rule U: Use commas to separate non-restrictive phrases and clauses starting with who.
I just read an interesting review of the new Google Glass, which, by the way, is very, very cool. But that’s beside the point.
The writer had a chance to try out Google Glass, and he wrote a good article. Here’s the article: http://www.sfgate.com/technology/businessinsider/article/I-Just-Tried-On-Google-Glass-And-This-Is-What-It-4347779.php
Now, to the point. The writer has a good grasp of correct comma use, and by correctly using commas, he made his moderately complex sentences easy to read and understand. In fact, I only found three comma errors, a better-than-typical rate for online journalists.
One of the comma errors, though, was so egregious that it deserves some explanation. The writer wrote,
“What I did realize, is that Google needs to offer a solution for individuals who wear glasses.”
The comma error is the comma betwen realize and is. By placing a comma there, the writer breaks Zen Comma rule AJ: No commas between subjects and predicates. When we parse this sentence, we can see how the comma breaks this rule.
The main verb begins the predicate of the sentence. In this sentence, the main verb is “is.” In most sentences, including this one, the subject is just prior to the predicate. In this sentence, the subject is “What I did realize.”
Subject: “What I did realize”
Predicate: “is that Google needs to offer….”
The comma separates the subject from the predicate, and it needs to be removed to make this sentence correct.
Why is this a problem? What’s the purpose of rule AJ?
Commas separate elements in sentences. However, the subject of a sentence must have a main verb to have meaning. Similarly, the predicate has no value, no meaning, unless it has a subject. As such, these two elements of the sentence cannot be separated. They work together to provide meaning.
Because they cannot be separated (or, because they must be together), we don’t separate them with a comma.
Commas Between Subjects and Predicates
“Hey,” you might be thinking, “I see commas between subjects and predicates all the time!” Yes, in some cases, we can have commas between subjects and predicates without breaking Zen Comma rule AJ. Here’s a correct example, also from the article.
“The right side of Glass, where the battery rests, is touch-sensitive.”
When we parse this sentence, we find the following.
Subject: “The right side of Glass”
Predicate: “is touch sensitive.”
Between the subject and predicate, we read the clause “where the battery rests.” This clause is an appositive for “The right side of Glass.” It is surrounded by commas, with the result that two commas are between the subject and predicate. Those commas are required by Zen Comma Rule J: Separate non-restrictive appositives with commas.
If we take out the appositive, we also take out the commas. In other words, the commas are there because of the appositive, not to separate the subject and predicate. In fact, they tell the reader when the appositive begins and ends so that the reader can easily find the predicate and connect it to the subject.
In any case, this is not what is happening in the faulty sentence. The faulty sentences doesn’t have an appositive (or other clause requiring commas) between the subject and predicate. Even if there were a reason for commas, we would need two, not one, commas.
End result: The writer made a comma error. That comma needs to go.
I came across this troubling sentence today:
“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems, if a solution is possible.”
Take a look at that comma after problems. Should that comma be there?
Zen Comma Rule H says, “Don’t separate the descriptive clause or phrase if it occurs at the end of the sentence.” On the other hand, Rule W says, “Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text.” Which rule applies to the sentence?
The answer is Rule H. The comma is wrong. Now, let’s figure out why.
“If a solution is possible” describes the action “can find.” It establishes a condition for the action to occur, making it an adverbial descriptive phrase. (adverbial = modifies the action in some way) This role of the descriptive phrase is more apparent when we move it to the beginning of the sentence, as follows.
“If a solution is possible, Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems.”
Following Zen Comma Rule G, the descriptive phrase in the modified sentence is properly followed by a comma. The phrase is clearly describing the action “can find.” The comma serves two purposes here:
(1) indicate that the introductory description is finished and the main idea is about to start, and
(2) separate the introductory phrase from the subject that follows.
However, when we put the introductory phrase at the end of the sentence, neither purpose applies, so no comma is needed. Thus, the original sentence, with the descriptive phrase at the end, does not need the comma.
But why doesn’t comma Rule W apply? As we saw when re-ordering the sentence, the descriptive phrase “if a solution is possible” refers to “can find a solution to staffing problems.” With the descriptive phrase at the end of the sentence, it does refer to the immediately preceding text, and we don’t need the comma.
If the comma isn’t needed, why is it there? I have two answers to that question.
First, it may be an error. Maybe the writer does not know how to use commas well and made a mistake.
Second, it may be there to force a pause for dramatic effect. The writer may have added the comma to emphasize the descriptive phrase. A better way to do this is as follows:
“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems—if a solution is possible.”
The comma is wrong, but it might serve a purpose, assuming that the writer intended this effect. To give the writer the benefit of my doubt, I will assume the writer added the comma for dramatic effect.