Use of Commas on the Bed

A comma can prevent you from communicating weird, and faulty, descriptions. If you know when to use commas, you can make sure to communicate what you mean.

Let’s jump right into an example.

I called my brother sitting on the bed.
I called my brother, sitting on the bed.

You see that the first sentence has no comma and the second one has a comma. These two sentences have different meanings. 

First Example

I called my brother sitting on the bed. 

In this sentence, the phrase sitting on the bed is a description of my brother, meaning my brother was sitting on the bed when I called him. It also means that I have more than one brother. How can that be? 

Sitting on the bed is acting like a restrictive modifier, which we know because this description is not set aside by commas. The lack of a comma means sitting on the bed is essential information to describe which brother I called. As a restrictive modifier, it tells the reader which brother I called, in this case my brother sitting on the bed and not some other brother. This also means that I must have more than one brother. Otherwise, I would not need to indicate which brother.

To help you understand when to use commas, consider any words that might be implied by the sentence. In this case, the words who was are implied, making the entire sentence read I called my brother who was sitting on the bed. With the implied words in the sentence, we can easily see that sitting on the bed is a description of my brother.

This comma follows Zen Comma Rule V: Don’t use commas to separate restrictive phrases and clauses starting with who. Now let’s look at the second sentence. 

Second Example

I called my brother, sitting on the bed. 

With the comma in place, the phrase sitting on the bed is separated from the words it immediately follows. Thus, sitting on the bed does not describe my brother. What, therefore, does it describe? 

Sitting on the bed must describe me as I was calling. I was sitting on the bed when I called my brother. This also means I only have one brother because I didn’t need to indicate which brother I called. 

This comma follows Zen Comma Rule W: Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text

Summary of the Sentences, Based on the Comma

Sentence one: My brother was sitting on the bed; I have more than one brother.
Sentence two: I was sitting on the bed; I have one brother. 

That one little comma, as you can see, makes a major difference in the meaning of these sentences. If I know when to use commas correctly, I can use, or not use, a comma to indicate the correct meaning.


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).

Advertisements

, , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. #1 by Aoryst (@aoryst) on September 6, 2011 - 7:03 am

    So would then
    “I called my brother, who was sitting on the bed.” (note a comma after brother)
    mean
    “I have ONE brother” and “He was sitting on the bed when I called him”?

    • #2 by preciseedit on September 6, 2011 - 8:10 am

      Yes. In this case, “who was sitting on the bed” is serving as a non-restrictive phrase to describe “brother.” A non-restrictive phrase provides a description of something (or re-names something) that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Thus, if the description is not necessary to identify which brother, the sentence implies that I have only one brother. This gives us:
      I have one brother.
      My brother was sitting on the bed when I called him.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: