I’m always on the lookout for examples of correct comma use and comma errors. Obviously, I find a lot of correct commas, probably because most text I read has already been edited. But I find many comma errors, too (not including the documents I edit).
Commas are confusing. For example, can you use a comma with and? Do you need a comma or a period? Good writers know when to use commas, and this brings me to the point of this post.
I am re-reading Standing Wave by Howard V. Hendrix, an intelligent, thought-provoking sci-fi book. Having just finished a couple of heavy novels, I needed something a bit more . . . well . . . easy to read. I quickly realized that Hendrix demonstrates exceptional use of commas, particularly when I found this sentence:
The portage was long, muscle-tearing, backbreaking work, made all the harder to coordinate by the unending din of the roaring falls, a white noise that pounded the men’s loudest shouts into silence.
This is a rather complicated sentence, and it carries a lot of information. It reads smoothly and can be easily understood, however, because of the four commas. Hendrix is using commas in three ways:
- Commas between coordinate adjectives,
- Commas with non-restrictive clauses and phrases, and
- Commas with appositives.
Let’s look at those commas and improve our understanding of when to use commas.
Hendrix’s Use of Commas
1. Commas between coordinate adjectives
The first two commas demonstrate the same use of commas. They are placed between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are adjectives that equally describe a noun that follows, and they are separated with a comma (Zen Comma Rule P).
In the sample sentence, we see that the adjectives long, muscle-tearing, and backbreaking all describe work. We know that they are coordinate because we can change their order and because we can place and between them without changing the meaning of the sentence. The comma between coordinate adjectives separates them from each other. This indicates that the one adjective does not modify the next adjective but, instead, modifies something else that follows.
Usually, coordinate adjectives come in pairs, but here Hendrix has three in a series. If we think of these adjectives as a series, we might think that Hendrix needs an and between the last two, as in “hard, muscle-tearing, and backbreaking.” He could have done this, but he still would have needed a comma after muscle-tearing. (Some writers ask whether to use the serial comma or not. See the explanation of, and reason for, the serial comma in this post.)
In any case, Hendrix made a valid style choice not to use and but, instead, to use coordinate adjectives, which, as we have just seen, require commas.
2. Commas with non-restrictive clauses and phrases
I have had more than one writing student roll his or her eyes when I first use the term non-restrictive during lessons on when to use commas.
A non-restrictive clause or phrase, simply, is a clause or phrase that provides additional description of something. It doesn’t tell you which thing I’m writing about. Rather, it provides some information about the thing. A non-restrictive phrase or clause typically begins with the word which.
The sample sentence has the non-restrictive clause made all the harder to coordinate by the unending din of the roaring falls. This expression provides a description of work. It doesn’t tell you which work he is describing. We already know which work. Rather, it provides an additional description of that work.
To let the reader know when the non-restrictive phrase begins and ends, this expression is preceded by one comma and is followed by another. Following Zen Comma Rule T, this non-restrictive phrase starting with which is separated from the rest of the sentence with commas.
Wait a minute! Where’s the word which? It’s implied. (Clever, huh?) With the implied words in place, the sentence would read “…backbreaking work, which was made all the harder to coordinate by the unending din of the roaring falls….” When we put which was in the sentence, the meaning doesn’t change, which is a clue that which was is in there—whether or not we can see it.
3. Commas with appositives
Appositive is another term that provokes eye-rolling. It, too, is easy to understand. Simply stated, an appositive provides another way to name something just written.
The expression a white noise that pounded the men’s loudest shouts into silence is another way to write the unending din of the roaring falls. They mean the same thing. As a result, we see that a white noise that pounded the men’s loudest shouts into silence is an appositive.
Appositives are separated from the rest of the sentence with commas (Zen Comma Rule J). If the appositive is embedded in the sentence, we put commas both before and after it. In this sample sentence, the appositive is at the end of the sentence, so Hendrix only needed the comma before it.
I have seen many mistakes with this use of commas. The common error is to use the first comma and forget the second one. If the appositive is embedded in the sentence, both are required.
Hendrix’s Use of Commas Revealed!
Here’s the entire sentence again, but this time with comma uses provided.
The portage was long [comma with coordinate adjective] muscle-tearing [comma with coordinate adjective] backbreaking work [comma to start non-restrictive phrase] made all the harder to coordinate by the unending din of the roaring falls [comma to end non-restrictive phrase & comma to start appositive] a white noise that pounded the men’s loudest shouts into silence.
Commas, when used properly, don’t make a sentence more complicated for the reader. If you know when to use commas, you help your reader understand your message. This is what Hendrix is doing with his four commas—helping you understand.
I declare Hendrix a comma master.
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.