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/.