Understanding The Dreaded Comma!
Posted on October 24, 2014
One of the hardest things I find when writing is how and when to use a comma.
There are pretty much hard and fast rules when it comes to other forms of punctuation but the comma is unique, because it is open to debate when it should be used.
When it first arrived in the English language (in the 18th century) the comma was supposed to signal a pause as well as separate phrases and clauses.
However, the comma was almost too popular for its own good, with many English writers overwhelmed by grammatical excitement and the fear of pedantic bastards picking up on errors. As a consequence it became heavily over used.
Of course, much to the disgust of the aristocracy, the ability to write is no longer exclusive to the upper classes, meaning experts in more recent times (particularly the last one hundred years) have settled on more universal rules resulting in comma usage being “toned down.”
I would love to meet a comma expert, purely to enjoy the hedonistic pleasure of meeting someone who would make me and my growing collection of pedantic peers look like mere novices.
I have a friend, Richard Chivers (some of you know him as Dickie McSpangle) who spends much of his time scouring Facebook for grammatical errors purely for entertainment purposes. I would love to introduce him to a comma expert.
That said, I am no better as when I caught him saying “your” instead of “you’re” the other week, I was close to ejaculating.
Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses. However, many people, including me, are not sure about the use of commas, often sprinkling them throughout their writing without knowing the basics.
So, as much as anything I am writing this blog to help me to learn to write clearer.
Here are the main cases when you need to use a comma:
In direct speech
To separate clauses
To mark off certain parts of a sentence
You or I need to put a comma between the different items in a list, as in the following sentences:
This morning I had a cooked breakfast that included scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and French toast.
My friend has an allotment where has decided to grow cabbages, onions, potatoes, and carrots.
The final comma in these lists (before the word ‘and’) is known as the ‘serial comma’. Not all writers or publishers use it, but it is used by Oxford Dictionaries and is referred to as ‘the Oxford comma’.
Using the Oxford comma can often make your meaning clearer to your reader, as the following example shows.
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon and ham and cheese.
When you read this you will see that it isn’t entirely clear whether the writer is listing three or four of their favourite sandwich fillings: is ‘ham’ one of their favourites and ‘cheese’ another, or is it ‘ham and cheese’ that they like?
I agree that this isn’t a life threatening issue but by adding an Oxford comma it makes the meaning clear.
My favourite sandwiches are chicken, bacon, and ham and cheese.
Using commas in direct speech.
I have just learnt, thanks to Google (so what if it spies on me) that when a writer quotes a speaker’s words exactly as they were spoken, it is known as direct speech.
If the piece of direct speech comes after the information about who is speaking, you need to use a comma to introduce the direct speech. The comma comes before the first quotation mark. Note that the final quotation mark follows the full stop at the end of the direct speech:
Richard replied, “Jesus Christ Bob, it’s just a comma.”
You also need to use a comma at the end of direct speech, if the speech comes before the information about who is speaking. In this case, the comma goes inside the quotation mark:
“Just because I caught you mistaking your with you’re,” I replied.
Of course, the English language has exceptions to the rule and is this instance there are two. If a piece of direct speech takes the form of a question or an exclamation, I’m afraid you need to end it with a question mark or an exclamation mark, rather than a comma.
“You are a pedantic bastard!” Richard shouted.
“What makes you say that?” Bob replied.
Direct speech is often broken up by the information about who is speaking. In these cases, you need a comma to end the first piece of speech (inside the quotation mark) and another comma before the second piece (before the quotation mark):
“Because you are a pedantic bastard,” Richard said, “and you always will be.”
“You can’t talk,” Bob added, “you always scour Facebook for grammatical errors.”
Using commas to mark off parts of a sentence
Commas are used to separate a part of a sentence that is an optional ‘aside’ and not part of the main statement.
Gunpowder is not, of course, a chemical compound.
His latest film, Harry Brown, opens next month.
In these sentences, the role of the commas is to mark off information that isn’t essential to the overall meaning. Using commas in this way can really help to clarify the meaning of a sentence. Take a look at this example:
Mr Chivers’ son, Richard, is pedantic.
The writer’s use of commas tells us that Mr Chivers has only one son. If you removed Richard’s name from the sentence, there would still be no doubt as to who was pedantic:
Mr Chivers’ son is pedantic.
If you rewrite the original sentence without commas its meaning changes:
Mr Chivers’ son Richard is pedantic.
The lack of commas tells us that the name ‘Richard’ is crucial to the understanding of the sentence. It shows that Mr Chivers has more than one son, and so the name of the one who is pedantic needs to be specified for the meaning to be clear.
Apparently, if you aren’t sure whether you’ve used a pair of commas correctly, you can try replacing them with brackets or removing the information enclosed by the commas altogether, and then see if the sentence is still understandable, or if it still conveys the meaning you intended.
There are of course, other issues with the comma that I am only beginning to understand. These are relative clauses, subordinate clauses, non-restrictive relative clauses, and main clauses.
However, I have not found a simple way of explaining how they work with commas as I don’t really know myself but I am kind of getting the idea…I think!
What is apparent is that commas are pretty much essential when referring to list and speech, but when we are writing sentences they are there as an optional way to get your point across in the simplest way possible. particularly in a long sentence.
I hope, for the benefit of my regular readers, this exercise makes my blog more readable in the future.
I also await Richard’s response, as without doubt, there will be some erors in this post for him to gleefully pick up on.