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April 8, 2011 / madeleine

To Comma or Not to Comma?

A panda is in a cafe and orders a sandwich. He eats the sandwich, pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter. As he leaves, the manager shouts, “Hey! Where are you going? You shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!” The panda yells back, “I’m a PANDA! Look it up!”

The manager opens his dictionary to see this definition:

“A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterized by distinct black and white colouring. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

It’s a terrible joke but gets the point across. Commas use is very important as it can completely change the meaning of a sentence. In Lynne Truss’ book Eats, Shoots & Leaves she describes when and where you should use a comma in order to convey the correct meaning to your readers. 

Commas for Lists

If you aren’t sure whether or not to use a comma just think: could I replace this with and or or? “The three dog breeds studied were Dalmatians, Labradors and Beagles.”  

The random use of the Oxford comma can be a little confusing. Basically it is the use of a comma before an and. Whether you use it or not depends on what you think improves your sentence. Truss uses the Oxford comma in her description of punctuation:

                   “they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop”. (pp. 85)

Without the Oxford comma (after detour) it seems to be a list of three instructions not four. 

Commas for Joining

If you want to join two complete sentences with a comma make sure it is followed by words such as and, or, but, while and yet. “I should have got their first, yet Maggie beat me to it.” 

BUT if the words are however and nevertheless you need to use a semicolon:

                    “It was the Queen’s birthday on Saturday; nevertheless, she had no post whatever”. (pp. 88)

Commas Before Direct Speech

Commas indicate a ‘half pause’. By placing a comma before direct speech you give the reader a chance to take a small breath before reading on. If you have ever read to a child you will probably know what I mean. This comma allows you to take a breath before putting on the voice of the next character:        

                     “The Queen said, ‘Doesn’t anyone know it’s my birthday?’” (pp. 90)

 Pairs of Commas

Also known as bracketing commas; you use these to show the ends of a “weak interruption”. If you’re not sure where to put these Truss says that readers should be able to remove what is in between the brackets without damaging the sentence. Basically these are the parts of the sentence you don’t really need.

                       “I am, of course, going steadily nuts.” (pp. 91)

If the interruption begins or ends a sentence the rule still applies, even if you only use one comma.

Many ‘rules’ apply for comma usage but Truss concludes with:

                      “Don’t use commas like a stupid person”. (pp. 96)

Have you ever used a comma just to have it go horribly wrong? Use commas based on your own discretion and be mindful of the multiple ways your sentence can be interpreted by your use.

Truss L. (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Funny Grammar Mistakes [Funny CV Mistakes]. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.oxbridgeediting.co.uk/blog/funny-grammar-mistakes-commas-619/.

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5 Comments

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  1. SONG / Apr 8 2011 4:38 am

    What a hilarious example, lol.
    I sort of feel like I’m suing too much commas when I write something, thie could be a useful guide for me to keep-in-mind. Eat, shoots and leaves…. Cooking dogs…

    May be I should have a closer look on my documents before I submit it, to check commas.

    but… what about mood and tone? I’m sure comma have something over it as well. Isn’t it sound kind of strict when a single sentence has a few commas?

    • Madeleine gordon / Apr 9 2011 2:45 am

      Hi song,
      I agree with you that commas influence mood and tone. By placing a comma before a word you place emphasis on that word and that emphasis can create a certain tone. Also if you use a lot of commas in your work you can end up with a very staccato sentence; one that has lots of small pauses and jumps in it. This can also influence mood and tone.

      What do you think though? Any other ideas as to how commas can influence mood and tone?

  2. cgak05 / Apr 8 2011 3:03 pm

    Great entry Madeleine.

    Your entry has definitely made me think twice about checking my assignments doubly attentively. Truth is, I’m sure that many of us don’t really pay much attention to the commas that we place in our sentences. We tend to pay more attention to the sentence structure, gramma and spelling mistakes. Even right now, as I type this comment, I am already starting to wonder if I am actually placing my commas at the right time!

    Besides the points that you have mentioned, I agree with Song that mood and tone does affect the way where commas should be placed. For example, “Sigh I feel sad” and “Sigh, I feel sad”. The comma does give the reader more of an impact on the expression/mood of the writer. It also gives a sentence a certain tone too. Without the use of commas, a sentence can seem rather monotonous and hence it affects the mood. Just think about a script written for a play. Imagine if the whole script didn’t have any commas in it. I reckon that it would make that play an absolutely boring play.

    Also, I have to comment that the example you gave “cooking dog” is a really good example. It would definitely make everyone of us who have read your entry, not only think twice about the importance of checking back on our assignments before submitting it, but also with almost everything! From resumes to formal letters.

    Commas do make a difference in how we write. Commas may be seen as “small little dots”, but they can make a huge difference! I would not want to me judged as someone with poor language skills just because of those “small little dots” would any one else of you want that?

  3. juhua11 / Apr 9 2011 2:23 am

    Has anyone read these stories? Punctuation Matters: A “Dear John” Letter and a Two Million Dollar Comma. The first story is a good example to show how misusing punctuation can convey opposite meanings and causes grief. Who would ever imagine a little comma can cause a million dollar. (http://grammar.about.com/od/punctuationandmechanics/a/punctmatters07.htm)

    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People
    who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I
    yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy–will you
    let me be yours?
    Jane

    After John read the email again and position the punctuation in the correctly, it make more sense.

    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people,
    who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men,
    I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will
    you let me be?
    Yours,
    Jane

    It is very true that a little comma seems so small, so unimportant. It can in fact create such a dramatic effect. It is particularly important to use correct punctuations in any legal writing to eliminate ambiguity.

    Here’s a sentence that could mean different things with and without the final comma: Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut.
    Without a comma, you can’t be sure whether the last recipe is a combination of peanut butter and chocolate chip or a combination of chocolate chip and coconut. You can make the meaning clear in two ways: place the final comma after peanut butter or after chocolate chip.

    Rremember punctuations do have meaning.

    • Madeleine gordon / Apr 9 2011 3:00 am

      These are two really good examples. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss uses the example of Sir Roger Casement who was ‘hanged on a comma’. He was actually hanged for treason but his defense tried to get him off on a punctuation point.
      The part of the act he was on trial for stated “If a man be adherent to the kings enemies in his realm giving to them aid and comfort…” the defend argued that seeing as the acts of treason weren’t committed “in his realm” (they were committed overseas) that he was not guilty. This argument didn’t hold up so it is said that Casement was “hanged on a comma”.

      Thought you might find that example interesting as well.

      Cheers,
      Madeleine

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