Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, all of the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making of deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.

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  1. #1 by Colin on September 26, 2013 - 3:33 pm

    Should you put a comma before the word “either” at the end of a sentence? Example: I didn’t want to go there, either.

  2. #2 by preciseedit on September 27, 2013 - 9:40 am

    @Colin: Good, interesting question.

    When you use either as a conjunctive adverb to join one statement to a previous statement, then you need a comma. This usage follows Zen Comma rule N: “Separate conjunctive adverbs with commas.” The comma ensures that the adverb modifies the entire expression, not just the immediately preceding words.

    Example: “She did not want to go there. I did not want to go there, either.”
    Example: “I didn’t want to go the movies. I didn’t want to go to the opera, either.”

    This rule also applies to such words as therefore, and as well.

  3. #3 by Colin on September 27, 2013 - 10:12 am

    Okay, so basically you always have to put the comma in when “either” or “therefore” or “as well” is at the end of a sentence since those words always join statements together? I bought your Zen Comma book, by the way. It was helpful, and your blog here I’ve been looking at has been, too. My only other question is about creating dramatic pauses with commas when the comma technically is not correct. Mostly I’m referring to using a comma in front of a subordinate clause that comes after an independent clause.

    For example, with the conjunction “as”:
    She said she would buy my book, as long as it was about a topic that interested her.
    She ended our conversation, as I thought she would.

    Technically those commas are wrong or unnecessary, correct? But if I want a short pause and don’t want to use a dash or ellipses, what other choice do I have but to use the comma?

  4. #4 by preciseedit on September 28, 2013 - 12:04 pm

    Yes, you got it now.

    Regarding the comma before the subordinate clause: Maybe.

    As with so many comma uses, the answer depends on what the final subordinate clause is doing.

    –Is it describing the information at the end of the sentence, from the predicate to the end? If so, you don’t need the comma.

    –Is it describing the entire sentence, not just the end? If so, you do need a comma.

    –Is it connecting the entire sentence to the prior sentence so that the meaning and purpose of the second sentence is found in the first sentence? (This use follows the guidelines for conjunctive adverbs.) If so, you do need a comma.

    Let’s look at your two example.

    In your first example (“She said she would buy…”), the comma is unnecessary (a.k.a. wrong) because the subordinate phrase is describing the condition under which she would buy the book. It is describing what immediately precedes the subordinate clause. Actually, in this example, “as” is not being used as a conjunction at all! It is part of the adverbial phrase “as long as.” Here, the subordinate clause, beginning with “as long as,” is serving as a dependent adverbial phrase to describe the action of buying.

    Your second example is more tricky because using or not using the comma changes the meaning, which seems appropriate, given the first sentence of this blog post.

    “She ended our conversation [no comma] as I thought she would.” Here, the descriptive phrase tells how she ended the conversation. The subordinate phase describes the action of ending the conversation.

    “She ended our conversation [comma] as I thought she would.” Here, the subordinate phrase is describing the entire sentence “She ended our conversation.” With the comma, the sentence communicates that I thought she would end the conversation and that she did, in fact, end the conversation.

    “As” is tricky!

    Overall, “as” is confusing word because it can serve as a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses, in which case it needs a comma, and it can also serve as an adverb to describe how, when, why, or under what conditions an action may occur, in which case a comma may or may not be needed.

    And finally, regarding creating a short pause with a comma

    The correct punctuation mark is the em dash, which is the long dash. The ellipsis is wrong. The comma, too, is wrong, but it is often acceptable in literary works. This is similar to using a sentence fragment for emphasis. It is wrong, but it may be useful. You can do this in literary works but not in technical or academic works.

    My only advice is to not overdo it. If you use commas in this way frequently, they soon lose their impact and become, instead, distracting and amateurish.

    I hope that this long response was helpful.

  5. #5 by Colin on September 29, 2013 - 9:19 am

    It was helpful, and I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I am focused on literary writing, not technical or academic works. As far as using commas with conjunctive adverbs, that is, every conjunctive adverb or adverbial phrase at the end of a sentence or in the middle of a sentence, I found I can’t be quite as conservative as you are, despite what you said about being consistent with comma usage. Punctuation is important in writing, I agree, but it’s not the most important thing.

    Take care

    • #6 by preciseedit on September 29, 2013 - 12:05 pm

      For technical and academic writing, I am very conservative. If something needs a comma, I put in the comma. These forms of writing are formal and require a high level of mechanical correctness, e.g., comma usage.

      For literary writing, however, the rules can be applied a bit more flexibly. Still, you need to know when you are breaking the rules, and you need to have a good reason to do so.

      Yes, content and meaning are more important than punctuation. The case I try to make is that correct punctuation usually helps readers understand the content and make sense of what they are reading.

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