Beware The “Illiteratives”, Part III: Commas
Our third installment of Beware the Illiteratives examines what may be the most misunderstood punctuation mark we writers deal with – the comma. In this posting, we will take a look at some common mistakes people make when they omit commas. Thank you for continuing to read and share our tips, and we will keep bringing you more pointers to help you avoid what I call the “Illiteratives”: usage and syntax mistakes which can make you appear uneducated to your reader.
Are You Appositive? – An appositive is an adjective or adjectival phrase which modifies a preceding noun. Many appositives are used as parenthetical expressions: additional information which can be omitted from the sentence without altering its meaning. These all require commas like you see below:
Frank, who has ten years of management experience, was hired to supervise the evening shift.
Julie, the wife of the high school track coach, is going to take the kids to school.
In both cases, the information between the commas can be omitted without changing the impact of the sentence. If the information provides specific identification or cannot be omitted, you do not use commas. For example:
Only the passengers who had already purchased tickets were allowed to board the plane.
In this case, the additional information identifies a particular group of people or an identifying characteristic, and removing the adjectival phrase changes the meaning of the sentence. If we had put commas around “who had already purchased tickets”, it would alter the meaning to signify that all the passengers had already purchased their tickets as opposed to a selected group.
Just Clause – A dependent clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought. They are always preceded or followed by an independent clause (a standalone sentence). Many dependent clauses begin with these words: after, around, because, before, despite, if, in, instead, since, when, and while. When dependent clauses begin a sentence, they are followed by a comma. Dependent clauses are never preceded by a comma when they are placed at the end of a sentence. The most common mistake I observe is the omission of the comma following the dependent clause.
TIP: Read your sentences to yourself or aloud, and you will most likely pause in your speech where the comma is needed.
Independent clauses may not be joined by simply using a comma, such as: Frank is a good skier, Joe is a great skier. They require either a comma plus a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) or a semicolon. Either:
Frank is a good skier; Joe is a great skier. Or Frank is a good skier, but Joe is a great skier.
Change of Address – When addressing a person directly, a comma is needed either before or after the name depending upon usage.
Tony, you did a great job on the presentation. Or You did a great job on the presentation, Tony.
The same rule applies to direct quotations; use a comma before the quote. Bob said, “Tonydid a great job on the presentation.” If you are generalizing the remarks a person made, you don’t need the comma and quotation marks. Bob said some great things about Tony’s presentation.
Multiple Adjective Disorder – Multiple adjectives preceding a noun sometimes require commas, and sometimes they do not. If two adjectives modify a noun in the same way, they are called coordinate adjectives. These are separated by a comma. Consider:
He was known for his witty, intelligent banter and his rugged, handsome features.
Coordinate adjectives can be identified using a two-part test:
1) Can you replace the comma with and? (witty and intelligent or rugged and handsome)
2) Can you reverse the word order without changing the meaning? (intelligent, witty or handsome, rugged)
If the answer is yes on both counts, you need a comma. If the paired adjectives fail one or both parts of the test, you have cumulative adjectives, and they are not separated by a comma:
The English class was taught by a retired mystery writer. (You wouldn’t say mystery retired writer.)
The parade included a red fire truck. (Red and fire truck makes no sense.)
It may be possible, in some cases, to avoid the problem altogether by switching to an adverb/adjective construction:
He was known for his intelligently witty banter and his ruggedly handsome features.
I hope these tips continue to add clarity and coherence to your writing. As always, there’s more to come!