Missouri Gets Tricky With Commas

I’m about to offer rare kudos to a state department of education. 

As I have said and written many times, I hold educators to a higher standard for correct English usage than I do the general public. I believe that educators have the responsibility to understand and model correct English grammar and punctuation. In many cases, I have found educators, and education leaders, in particular, to fall short.

The Sample

To my surprise and delight, I found a great example of a tricky comma rule on the Missouri Department of Education website:

The first part of this unit includes identifying rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration in fiction and nonfiction text, with assistance.

Clearly, this writer knows how to use commas. Let’s parse the punctuation of the sentence and see what we can learn.

The Serial Comma

First, the writer is using the serial comma (a.k.a. the Oxford Comma). This sentence has a series of three items: rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. The comma before and is the serial comma. The comma with and follows Zen Comma Rule A: Separate every item in a series with a comma.

Some people say always use the serial comma. Some say never use it. Some say use it when it contributes to clarity. I’m in the first camp for two reasons

  1. At times, the serial comma is necessary to indicate how the items in a series are grouped, i.e., for clarity. I follow the principle that what we do sometimes for clarity, we do all the time for consistency.
  2. As importantly, the serial comma reflects the function of commas, in general. Commas separate individual units of meaning in a sentence. They help the reader identify each part of the sentence that carries unique meaning. Thus, in a series, the commas separate individual parts so the reader can easily find and understand them.

Is this always necessary? No, but it’s consistent. Are there cases where the serial comma might actually add confusion? Yes, and the writer should be alert to such cases, which might indicate the need to revise the sentence. In these cases, usually, the words and sentence structure, not the commas, create the confusion. 

Ok. So that’s one way the writer demonstrates how to use commas. Now, here’s the tricky comma use. 

The Tricky Comma Use 

Let’s turn our attention to the final comma: “…fiction and nonfiction text, with assistance.”

That comma plays a highly important role. It separates “with assistance” from “nonfiction text.” The comma indicates that “with assistance” does not describe “nonfiction text” Could there be such a thing as nonfiction text with assistance? Sure! (For example, it might be accompanied by an audio recording.)

In this case, the expression “with assistance” is not referring to “nonfiction text” but to “identifying.” To demonstrate this, let’s rearrange the sentence. 

The first part of this unit includes identifying with assistance rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration in fiction and nonfiction text. 

This revision has the same meaning as the original, and we can easily see that “with assistance” is describing how students are expected to perform the task of identifying. To prevent the reader from linking “with assistance” to the wrong part of the sentence, this writer followed Zen Comma Rule W: Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text.

In summary, here’s how that comma contributes to clarity.

  1. Without the comma, the reader may think students should identify rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration in the type of text known as “nonfiction text with assistance.” This is an incorrect interpretation.
  2. With the comma, the reader will interpret this sentence as meaning students will have assistance when identifying rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. This is the correct interpretation.

 Kudos to the Missouri Department of Education for correct comma use.

Need help with commas? Get Zen Comma, an instructive reference guide on 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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