Posts Tagged punctuation

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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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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Bumbo Sits Motionless

The Koan

Bumbo sat motionless in the Temple of Meaning. His teacher asked what he was doing.
“I am learning to use commas,” Bumbo told him.
“You foolish student,” the teacher exclaimed. “If you do not act on what you know, your life will never be complete.”

The Explanation

Bumbo, the subject of this koan, isn’t doing anything. He thinks he is, but he is wrong. The teacher reminds him that a subject without an action is incomplete. He wants Bumbo to learn that a comma should not separate the predicate from the subject because a subject needs a predicate to make a complete sentence.

The Lesson

Every complete sentence needs two things: a subject and a predicate. These two parts are required and work together to make a complete sentence. The key word here is together.

Commas separate items in a sentence. The absence of a comma shows that they are connected. If we put a comma between the subject and predicate, we separate them. This is wrong because they need to be connected: they work together.

Wrong example: The author of the best-selling book on marketing, began planning his next book.

In this wrong example, the complete subject is The author of the best-selling book on marketing. The predicate, which begins with the main verb, is began planning his next book. This example is wrong because it has a comma between the subject and predicate. To fix this sentence, we remove the comma and join the subject and predicate.

The only time you can have a comma between the subject and predicate is when the end of the subject has some phrase or expression that requires a pair of commas. In that case, the commas are in the sentence not to separate the subject and predicate but to separate the phrase, as seen in the next example.

Correct example with commas: The author of the best-selling book on marketing, which he released the prior year, began planning his next book.

In this example, the comma before the main verb is part of a pair of commas to separate the non-restrictive phrase which he released the prior year. The first sentence of the explanation above also uses commas in this way.


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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Bumbo Is a Comma Fool

The Koan

On his first day at the Zen Comma School, Bumbo was happily putting commas in his first assignment. He wrote, “This school, is great, and, I will learn, a lot.”

The teacher looked over Bumbo’s shoulder and read the assignment. Then he hit Bumbo with a stick.

“Why did you hit me?” Bumbo cried.

His teacher replied, “Because you are a fool!”

The Lesson

Bumbo was a fool because he was using commas without understanding. He was using the “salt shaker” approach to comma…just sprinkle them in the sentences and hope that some of them will land in the right places. He knew that commas are important, so he used a lot of them. But he had no idea where to use them or why he was using them.

The Discussion

Bumbo was right that commas are very important. They help the reader understand the message of the sentence. Commas do this by separating (not joining!) individual components of the sentence, which helps the reader identify meaningful parts that together convey the meaning of the entire sentence. 

We put commas in to separate discrete components of the sentence, each of which has its own meaning. However, some parts must be joined because they are incomplete without another part. We don’t put a comma between them so that they will remain connected. 

Comma use follows very specific rules, each based on the principle that commas are tools for separating components of sentences. For example, Zen Comma Rule AJ states, “Don’t use a comma to separate the predicate from the subject.” When Bumbo put a comma a comma before “is,” he separated the predicate from the subject, “This school.” 

Fill your sentences with commas, if you must, but don’t do it like Bumbo. Don’t put in commas willy-nilly. Put them where they belong.


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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