New year, new writing! Be they blog posts, newsletters, websites, books, resumes, or anything in between, I hope your writing projects in 2018 are enjoyable and effective.
To kick the year off, I’m going to talk about a few common errors I see involving that tiny little ever-present punctuation mark, the comma. A post about comma problems could truly go on forever—commas near quotations? commas between adjectives? commas and clauses?? IT NEVER ENDS. And to be honest, I make plenty of comma mistakes myself, and I’m not always consistent in my comma style decisions. (Hey, tastes change! I used to hate the serial comma, and now you will have to pry my precious serial swoops from my cold, dead, overdramatic hands.) So I’m just going to stick to comma mistakes that I think are most noticeable and frequent.
Side note: I’ve been breaking out into “comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleoooon” since I first thought up this blog post months ago. And now I’ve passed it onto you, like The Ring. You’re welcome. “You come and goooo, you come and gooo-o-o-oo.”
Obligatory history lesson
Before we get started, a little background on our changing punctuation preferences. A few centuries ago, English writers used commas and semicolons much more freely than we do now (though they didn’t always agree on them). What do you imagine when thinking about writing during the time of, say, the founding fathers? For me, it brings to mind swooping calligraphy with giant f’s for s’s, written with a quill pen by candlelight while wearing those really high stockings. It also brings to mind sentences made almost unreadable by unnecessary commas every few words. Check out all the commas at the beginning of Jonathan Swift’s satirical A Modest Proposal, published in 1729:
And how about the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813:
This generous style of punctuation has evolved, and a tamer version is now known as close style or closed style. Think of closed style as the safe choice in formal writing. It’s when, for example, you put a comma after every introductory element—Hello, Ms. Knowles-Carter, and thank you for coming to my birthday or After the cake, we can take photographic proof that you were here.
In informal communications, though, you might opt for open punctuation without a second thought. If you skip all these “safe” commas to avoid seeming overly formal, the reader of your email, blog post, or text probably won’t even notice.
Different organizations and publications make different decisions on adopting a more closed versus a more open style. A law office might use closed style so that nothing is ambiguous or left to interpretation, while a newspaper will definitely follow the AP’s open style to help their articles flow quickly. As for the rest of us without house style guides, well, we just have to decide for ourselves.
Mistake 1: A comma separating the subject and the verb.
Now that we know there are different ways to approach commas, let’s talk about indisputable errors. To me, this first one is the most glaring mistake—the one that moved me to write this post. Many writers feel the need to insert a comma between a sentence’s subject and verb. Most likely, they think that this is where they would naturally pause if speaking the sentence aloud.
✘ The hot dog eating contest, raised enough money to buy more hot dogs.
✘ Kids nowadays, don’t appreciate the value of a good pet rock.
Unfortunately, regardless of whether you prefer closed or open style, this comma placement is considered an error. Although you might pause here when speaking, the comma chops up the written version too much. Usually a comma placed here signals to the reader than an interrupting piece of information is coming next, and then the sentence’s predicate will follow afterward; your reader might get tripped up when they realize this is the whole sentence. Luckily, it’s an easy fix!
✓ The hot dog eating contest raised enough money to buy more hot dogs.
✓ Kids nowadays don’t appreciate the value of a good pet rock.
Mistake 2: Commas surrounding a piece of essential information.
This one can get a little complicated—you’ve got appositives and relative clauses, both of which can be either essential/restrictive or nonessential/nonrestrictive. I’m going to keep it pretty simple here. Basically, if you’re putting an extra piece of information into a sentence that is essential to the sentence’s meaning—that changes the meaning depending on its inclusion or omission—do not set that bit of information off with commas.
✘ The person, who took my clown wig, needs to return it before my job interview.
✘ I assume the movie, Black Swan, is about birdwatching.
Here’s an easy test: if you delete the extra info and the sentence no longer makes sense, don’t use commas. Deleting the extra bits here make for sentences that are too vague: The person needs to return it before my job interview. What person? Return what? I assume the movie is about birdwatching. Which movie? These pieces of information are essential to the meaning of each sentence, so we do not set them off with commas.
✓ The person who took my clown wig needs to return it before my job interview.
✓ I assume the movie Black Swan is about birdwatching.
Now, if the rest of the sentence is specific enough that deleting that extra information does not change its meaning (if the extra information is nonessential or nonrestrictive), then go ahead and set it off with commas.
✓ My first husband, Billiam, was very sensitive about his first name.
✓ Rabbits, despite their sarcastic demeanor, make excellent companions.
Mistake 3: Commas separating a compound predicate.
A basic sentence comprises a subject and a verb. Sometimes one subject can govern two verbs, making for a compound predicate. Many (myself included) are tempted to separate the two verbs by a comma because it “feels right.”
✘ Deb makes milkshakes, and brings all the boys to the yard.
✘ You yelled at me for using your curling iron, but didn’t tell me how to style the cat’s hair instead.
I am definitely guilty of this. Sometimes it feels correct, but sometimes it feels like comma overkill, and I usually forget to look up the rule to sort it out (hopefully writing this blog post will help it stick in my memory). The thing to remember here is that this is not a compound sentence—it’s not two separate sentences (aka independent clauses) stuck together with a conjunction like and or but. If it were, we’d be able to separate the clauses, and they could both stand alone as complete sentences. But And brings all the boys to the yard and But didn’t tell me how to style the cat’s hair instead are not complete sentences. One subject—Deb and you, respectively—applies to both verbs, making these compound predicates that should not be separated by a comma.
✓ Deb makes milkshakes and brings all the boys to the yard.
✓ You yelled at me for using your curling iron but didn’t tell me how to style the cat’s hair instead.
Mistake 4: Omitting the serial comma before a compound list item.
This last one applies to all you non–serial comma-ers. If you prefer to omit the serial comma (or the Oxford comma or Harvard comma or whatever you highfalutin types want to call it), that’s totally your right. But sometimes you need to include that last comma in the name of clarity—namely, when one of the final two list items contains a conjunction.
✘ Their beta toothpaste flavors include ham, avocado and potato and leek.
✘ My yoga studio offers bouncing, affirmations and denials and tranquility screaming.
In the first example, are avocado and potato a pair, or are potato and leek a pair? In the second example, which group does denials belong to? Or maybe each word is its own list item—bouncing, affirmations, denials, tranquility screaming—and you just got carried away with the ands? Even if you don’t use serial commas in general, they’re called for in sentences like these to prevent ambiguity.
✓ Their beta toothpaste flavors include ham, avocado, and potato and leek.
✓ My yoga studio offers bouncing, affirmations and denials, and tranquility screaming.
Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma conclusion
The world of commas is a complex one. Dive in and you’ll find not only endless situations calling for a unique rule but also endless debate about whether each rule is even necessary. I hope I’ve helped clarify a few cases that pop up often and that most grammarians generally agree on.
To be honest, though, I only really wrote this conclusion so I could use another Boy George gif.