Task Force Finds Mixed Results on Commas

I’m always happy to reward writers for great comma use, mainly because commas are confusing and yet so essential to writer credibility and reader understanding.

I’ll give New Mexico Public Education a thumbs up for being most improved. As you will see, though, there’s still some work to do.

“Great teachers produce great students, and great students are absolutely essential to the future of New Mexico,” said Governor Martinez. New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera added, “We want to make sure those teachers who are making a big difference not only get the recognition they deserve, but also to serve as role models and show the full potential we can achieve.” (http://ped.state.nm.us/press/2011/Governor%20Martinez%20forms%20Task%20Force%20to%20Reward%20New%20Mexico%20Teachers%204-25-2011.pdf)

This has 4 commas, and 3 of them are correct, so I give this quotation a 75%, or grade of C.

Comma One: Correct

Look at the first comma in sentence one. The quotation in this sentence has 2 independent clauses: (1) “Great teachers produce great students,” (2) “great students are absolutely essential to the future ofNew Mexico.” Each of these could be a complete sentence. Following Zen Comma Rule D, Put a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses, this comma is correct. 

Comma Two: Correct

The second comma is at the end of the quotation, and it is inside the quotation. This quotation follows Zen Comma Rule AG: Separate quoted material from the main sentence with a comma, and Rule AH: Put the comma inside the final quotation mark. Based on these two rules, this comma is correct.

Comma Three: Correct

The third comma is before the second quotation. This comma, too, follows Zen Comma Rule AG and is correct.

Comma Four: Wrong

So far, everything is fine. Then we get to the final comma, which is before the “not only” phrase. Zen Comma Rule AI: Don’t separate the two halves of a correlative pair with commas. Correlative pairs (or pairs of correlative conjunctions, to be exact) are expressions such as either…or, neither…or, and not only…but also. The second part of the pair is required to make the sentence grammatically correct. If you have the first part, you need the second part. See that last one, not only…but also?

Based on Rule AI, no comma should precede but also unless required by another rule, such as to separate an appositive (Rule J). This particular comma before but also is a common mistake. Now look again at the text quoted. It has a comma in that place, and it shouldn’t. That comma is wrong.

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