Comma Principles Make Sense-Really

Confusing Commas

Of the 100s of K – 12 teachers I have worked with over the years, only a small handful could explain how to use commas correctly. To no surprise, of the 100s of adult continuing education students I have taught over the years, most were confused by commas.

I finally wrote Zen Comma because I couldn’t find a comprehensive, clear, and credible resource dedicated to commas. The rules for commas make sense, but my experience suggests that people generally don’t understand the core principles of commas use and, therefore, have difficulty using them correctly.

Comma Principles

On the other hand, once a person fully understands the principles for commas, the rules will make sense. As stated in Zen Comma, page 1,”Commas are visual clues that have only one purpose: Help the reader separate parts of sentences into discrete, meaningful messages.”

For example, consider commas before coordinating conjunctions (e.g., “and,” “but”). Following the principle that commas separate and identify individual meanings within sentences, we use a comma to separate individual independent clauses, and we leave out a comma to indicate that an idea is not yet complete (Zen Comma Rule D).

The following two correct examples show how this principle affects comma use.

1. “I left Susan a message last week but haven’t heard back from her yet.”
Here, we don’t use a comma before “but” because the second part must be connected to the first part for the sentence to be grammatically and conceptually correct. This sentence has a compound predicate (i.e., one subject with two verbs). A comma before “but” would separate the subject from its second verb, yet they must be connected to indicate a complete thought. However, by leaving out the comma, we indicate that the verb “have heard” is connected to the subject, which is in the first part of the sentence. Without a comma, the subject is correctly linked to its second predicate.

2. “I left Susan a message last week, but I haven’t heard back from her yet.”
Here, we use a comma to indicate that the second part is a separate thought. The comma indicates that one message is complete and that another is about to start.

Commas with Short Sentences

This same principle tells us that “I swam and she called for help” is incorrect, or, at least, doesn’t follow comma principles. The second half of the sentence is a separate thought and has its own subject and verb. With strict adherence to the principle, the correctly punctuated sentence is “I swam, and she called for help.” The comma tells the reader that the first idea is complete and that another is about to start.

(People who follow a more relaxed application of the rules may leave out the comma in this sentence because it is short. However, consider whether a comma would help identify the two messages in this short sentence: “Dogs like running and jumping is good for them.” My advice regarding short compound sentences: If you use the comma sometimes for clarity, use it all the time for consistency.)

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Commas before and

Do you use a comma before “and” or not? Take a look at these four sentences and decide which two are correct.

  1. The train carried the log, and pulled the tubs.
  2. The train carried the log and pulled the tubs.
  3. The train carried the log and it pulled the tubs.
  4. The train carried the log, and it pulled the tubs.

Answers and explanation

Correct sentences: #2 and #4.

Sentences 1 and 2 have one subject followed by two predicates. Subject and predicates must be joined, so we can’t use the comma to separate them. This makes #2 correct.

Sentences 3 and 4 have two separate independent clauses joined by “and.” (Independent clauses have a subject and predicate and can serve as a complete sentence.) Independent clauses are separate ideas, so we need a comma to separate them. This makes #4 correct.

The two correct sentences look like this:

traincommas.1

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Commas with conjunctions and adverbs

I recently responded to a comma question on another website that really made me think. The question pertained to commas in sentences that have conjunctions followed by conjunctive adverbs. I am reposting my response here because (1) it was an interesting question and (2) my response may help people who have a similar question.

Go here for the original post and discussion. (external site, new window)

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You asked a complex question, but I will take a crack at explaining how to use commas in your sample.

Let’s use this sample: “The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, could not control the wild stallion.”

FIRST, THE EASY PART: COMMA BEFORE CONJUNCTIONS

This sentence should not have a comma before “but” because the text that follows is not an independent clause.

If you were to remove “nevertheless,” the sentence would be structurally identical to the sentences described in this post, as follows: “The rider had a lot of experience but could not control the wild stallion.” It has no subject following “but” and, therefore, does not need a comma before “but” (similar to this sentence).

In brief: If you have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction. Otherwise, don’t.

SECOND, THE HARD PART: COMMAS AROUND CONJUNCTIVE ADVERBS

Now, let’s think about your question specifically and examine the commas around conjunctive adverbs, including “nevertheless.” Let’s add a subject to the second part of the sentence (which requires adding the comma before the conjunction) and see what happens.

First approach: Some people say you should use commas around “nevertheless” because “nevertheless” and similar words are conjunctive adverbs, which are set off from the rest of the sentence with commas. Using the commas around conjunctive adverbs following conjunctions can make a sentence sound choppy, but this advice represents strict adherence to comma rules.

Following this advice gives you “The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.”

Second approach: Other people say you can omit the comma between the conjunction and the conjunctive adverb because it does not contribute to clarity. This advice represents a relaxation of comma rules and results in a smoother-sounding sentence.

Following this advice gives you “The rider had a lot of experience, but nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.”

As most of my writing is technical, I use the first approach: use commas around the conjunctive adverb. If the sentence sounds choppy, rather than omitting the comma before the conjunctive adverb, I would revise the sentence to reduce the need for commas, such as by omitting the second subject.

Here’s the point: The comma before the conjunction and the commas around conjunctive adverbs are separate issues. Adding commas (or not) around the conjunctive adverb does not affect the comma before the conjunction, and adding a comma before the conjunction does not affect the commas around the conjunctive adverb.

For example, see my previous statement: “It has no subject following ‘but’ and, therefore, does not need a comma before ‘but.’ “

Here, we see the sentence does not need a comma before the conjunction “and” because the remaining text is not an independent clause. The text “therefore, does not need a comma before ‘but’ ” is not a complete sentence. However, this example still needs commas around the conjunctive adverb “therefore.”

If we add a subject to the second part, we will use a comma before the conjunction, as noted in this post. We also still need the commas around the conjunctive adverb “therefore.” The result is as follows: “It has no subject following ‘but,’ and, therefore, it does not need a comma before “but.”

SUMMARY OF COMMA USE FOR CONJUNCTIONS FOLLOWED BY CONJUNCTIVE ADVERBS

To summarize, with examples:

1. The rider had a lot of experience but could not control the wild stallion.
(no second subject and no comma before the conjunction)

2. The rider had a lot of experience, but he could not control the wild stallion.
(second subject and comma before the conjunction)

3. The rider had a lot of experience but, nevertheless, could not control the wild stallion.
(no second subject and no comma before the conjunction, commas around the conjunctive adverb)

4. The rider had a lot of experience, but, nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.
(first approach, strict: second subject and comma before the conjunction, commas around the conjunctive adverb)

5. The rider had a lot of experience, but nevertheless, he could not control the wild stallion.
(second approach, relaxed: second subject and comma before the conjunction, comma only following the conjunctive adverb)

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From Bad to Good-Technical and Academic Writing

conciseprint.coverAcademic and technical writing are far different than literary writing, such as novels and poetry. The primary purpose of academic and technical writing is to provide information about a defined topic to a specific audience. Whether you write graduate papers, professional journal articles, dissertations, white papers, manuals, websites, reviews, or similar documents, you are writing academic or technical documents.

Academic and technical writing can be bad writing. They can be complicated, tedious, and confusing. They can be terribly boring. Unfortunately, bad academic and technical writing is common (which makes bad writers nearly indistinguishable from their crowd of peers).

Why do people write badly? Possibly, they think the writing is supposed to be dull and confusing, or perhaps they think it sounds more professional. Maybe they have read a lot of poor writing, so when they review their writing, it sounds “right.”

On the other hand, academic and technical writing can be good writing. They can be clear and straightforward, logical, persuasive, and useful. They can be wonderfully interesting. Unfortunately, good writing is uncommon (which makes good writers stand out from their peers).  Read the rest of this entry »

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