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Comma Principles Really Do Make Sense

Confusing Commas

Of the 100s of K – 12 teachers I have worked with over the years, only a small handful could explain how to use commas correctly. To no surprise, of the 100s of adult continuing education students I have taught over the years, most were confused by commas.

I finally wrote Zen Comma because I couldn’t find a comprehensive, clear, and credible resource dedicated to commas. The rules for commas make sense, but my experience suggests that people generally don’t understand the core principles of commas use and, therefore, have difficulty using them correctly.

Comma Principles

On the other hand, once a person fully understands the principles for commas, the rules will make sense. As stated in Zen Comma, page 1,”Commas are visual clues that have only one purpose: Help the reader separate parts of sentences into discrete, meaningful messages.”

For example, consider commas before coordinating conjunctions (e.g., “and,” “but”). Following the principle that commas separate and identify individual meanings within sentences, we use a comma to separate individual independent clauses, and we leave out a comma to indicate that an idea is not yet complete (Zen Comma Rule D).

The following two correct examples show how this principle affects comma use.

1. “I left Susan a message last week but haven’t heard back from her yet.”
Here, we don’t use a comma before “but” because the second part must be connected to the first part for the sentence to be grammatically and conceptually correct. This sentence has a compound predicate (i.e., one subject with two verbs). A comma before “but” would separate the subject from its second verb, yet they must be connected to indicate a complete thought. However, by leaving out the comma, we indicate that the verb “have heard” is connected to the subject, which is in the first part of the sentence. Without a comma, the subject is correctly linked to its second predicate.

2. “I left Susan a message last week, but I haven’t heard back from her yet.”
Here, we use a comma to indicate that the second part is a separate thought. The comma indicates that one message is complete and that another is about to start.

Commas with Short Sentences

This same principle tells us that “I swam and she called for help” is incorrect, or, at least, doesn’t follow comma principles. The second half of the sentence is a separate thought and has its own subject and verb. With strict adherence to the principle, the correctly punctuated sentence is “I swam, and she called for help.” The comma tells the reader that the first idea is complete and that another is about to start.

(People who follow a more relaxed application of the rules may leave out the comma in this sentence because it is short. However, consider whether a comma would help identify the two messages in this short sentence: “Dogs like running and jumping is good for them.” My advice regarding short compound sentences: If you use the comma sometimes for clarity, use it all the time for consistency.)

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Commas before and

Do you use a comma before “and” or not? Take a look at these four sentences and decide which two are correct.

  1. The train carried the log, and pulled the tubs.
  2. The train carried the log and pulled the tubs.
  3. The train carried the log and it pulled the tubs.
  4. The train carried the log, and it pulled the tubs.

Answers and explanation

Correct sentences: #2 and #4.

Sentences 1 and 2 have one subject followed by two predicates. Subject and predicates must be joined, so we can’t use the comma to separate them. This makes #2 correct.

Sentences 3 and 4 have two separate independent clauses joined by “and.” (Independent clauses have a subject and predicate and can serve as a complete sentence.) Independent clauses are separate ideas, so we need a comma to separate them. This makes #4 correct.

The two correct sentences look like this:



A Dramatic Comma

I came across this troubling sentence today:

“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems, if a solution is possible.”

Take a look at that comma after problems. Should that comma be there?

Zen Comma Rule H says, “Don’t separate the descriptive clause or phrase if it occurs at the end of the sentence.” On the other hand, Rule W says, “Use commas to separate final descriptions that don’t refer to the immediately preceding text.” Which rule applies to the sentence?

The answer is Rule H. The comma is wrong. Now, let’s figure out why.

“If a solution is possible” describes the action “can find.” It establishes a condition for the action to occur, making it an adverbial descriptive phrase. (adverbial = modifies the action in some way) This role of the descriptive phrase is more apparent when we move it to the beginning of the sentence, as follows.

“If a solution is possible, Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems.”

Following Zen Comma Rule G, the descriptive phrase in the modified sentence is properly followed by a comma. The phrase is clearly describing the action “can find.” The comma serves two purposes here:

(1) indicate that the introductory description is finished and the main idea is about to start, and

(2) separate the introductory phrase from the subject that follows.

However, when we put the introductory phrase at the end of the sentence, neither purpose applies, so no comma is needed. Thus, the original sentence, with the descriptive phrase at the end, does not need the comma.

But why doesn’t comma Rule W apply? As we saw when re-ordering the sentence, the descriptive phrase “if a solution is possible” refers to “can find a solution to staffing problems.” With the descriptive phrase at the end of the sentence, it does refer to the immediately preceding text, and we don’t need the comma.

If the comma isn’t needed, why is it there? I have two answers to that question.

First, it may be an error. Maybe the writer does not know how to use commas well and made a mistake.

Second, it may be there to force a pause for dramatic effect. The writer may have added the comma to emphasize the descriptive phrase. A better way to do this is as follows:

“Wilson can find a solution to staffing problems—if a solution is possible.”

The comma is wrong, but it might serve a purpose, assuming that the writer intended this effect. To give the writer the benefit of my doubt, I will assume the writer added the comma for dramatic effect.

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A Missed Date with Commas

Where do you put commas when writing out the date? Commas with dates can be a little confusing because comma use changes according to how the date is written. Perhaps this little dialogue will demonstrate.

“I’m going on a date with Lisa,” Bob said.
“Oh, when are you going?” Tom asked.
March 14.”
“Really?” Tom asked again. “What year?”
“What do you mean, what year? In 2012!” Bob said, indignant.
“So you’re going in March 2012?”
“Yes, on the 14th!”
“Let me see if I understand,” Tom said.”On March 14, 2012, you’re going on a date with Lisa.”
“That’s what I said! Not January 2012. Not February 2012. March 2012!”
March 14, 2012, you and Lisa are going on a date?”
Bob got mad at Tom’s persistent questions. “What are you getting at, Tom?”
“Will you answer one more question first, Bob?”
“You do realize, don’t you, that March 14, 2012, has already passed?”

One quick note about these examples: The dates in this dialogue follow American English conventions, with month, day, and year. Other countries use different systems, such as day, month, and year (example: 14 March, 2012).

Now, to explain:

1. Month and Year only = no comma

2. Month and Day only = no comma

3. Month and Day and Year = commas around the year (before and after). This follows Zen Comma Rule AC: Put commas around the year with the month and day are included.

I hope this helps!

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