Bumbo Learns about Implied Words

The Koan

The teacher went to the platform to give his lesson on commas. He looked at the students, saying nothing. Then he wrote a comma on the wall and left. “Ah,” said Bumbo. “Missing words need commas, too!”

The Lesson

When the teacher stands before the students, saying nothing, all his words are implied. What Bumbo learns is that whether the sentence contains all the words or whether some words are purposefully left out, a writer needs to use commas as if they were all there. The comma left behind by the teacher indicates that comma rules apply even when some words are missing from a sentence.

First Example: No Comma Needed

Let’s see how this works in a sentence with implied words.

I remember the way that her face glistened in the sun and her eyes sparkled in the candlelight.

If we know Zen Comma Rule D (Put a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses), we may think we need a comma before the word and. The expression her eyes sparkled in the candlelight looks like an independent clause, a complete sentence.

We would be wrong. To figure out where to put in the commas and where to leave them out, we need to consider what words, if any, are missing from the sentence. We need to follow Zen Comma Rule E: Use commas as if implied words were present.

The implied words in this sample are the way that, as follows.

I remember the way that her face glistened in the sun and (the way that) her eyes sparkled in the candlelight.

Now, with the implied words in place, we see that the way that her eyes sparkled in the candlelight is not an independent clause. It cannot serve as a complete sentence. As such, Rule D does not apply.

We are not joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, so we do not need a comma before and. When we understand that the sentence has implied (i.e., missing) words, we can figure out how to use the commas.

Second Lesson: Comma Needed

However, as the teacher instructed Bumbo, missing words may require us to add commas, as well. The following sentence also has missing words.

My father drives a Honda, and my mother, too.

This sentence has a comma before and for two reasons. First, if we leave out the comma, the sentence suggests that my father drives both a Honda and my mother (as if she, too, were a car). The comma separates my mother from My father drives to prevent this strange interpretation.

Second, and as importantly, the comma before and is there to follow Zen Comma Rule D: Put a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses. We have to put in the implied words to find the second independent clause. In this example, the missing words are drives a Honda, as follows.

My father drives a Honda, and my mother (drives a Honda), too.

With the missing words in place, we can easily recognize my mother drives a Honda as an independent clause. Now we see that and is joining two independent clauses, and, following Rule D, it is preceded by a comma. By following Rule E (Use commas as if implied words were present), we know we need to follow Rule D.

Bumbo Is Enlightened

As Bumbo learned, implied words affect where he should use commas and where he should leave them out. To use commas correctly and to communicate clearly and professionally, we need to learn the same lesson.


Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, a guide to the 17 major uses and misuses of commas, available in PDF and Kindle formats. Read more about Zen Comma.

Your Writing Companion: Our e-book with samples from each of our writing guides: Get the free e-book (PDF, 45 pages) or purchase the Kindle version ($0.99).

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