Grammar Gremlins: Comma Sense

Commas matter. They clarify the meaning of a sentence. If used incorrectly, they can derail the meaning just as easily. Often common sense and a little analysis help with their placement just as much as any grammar book.

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We’ve all seen examples like this:

I’m eating Dad. Unless you are writing a particularly twisted horror story, chances are you meant to write I’m eating, Dad.

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gremlin-2Or this one, recently seen on Facebook: I enjoy cooking my family and my pets. I sincerely hope that should be I enjoy cooking, my family, and my pets, whether or not you are an adherent of the Oxford Comma (that’s the one after family in this instance—some style books do not use it.)

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I recently came across this sentence in a thriller I’m reading. I’ve changed a few words to protect the author, but the punctuation remains as published. In this example, an extra comma plays havoc with meaning, and may cause unintentional laughter.

Perched on an antique settee, covered in flowered chintz, Jane Character considered her next move.

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If you read this sentence carefully, you will notice that Jane is not only perched on that settee, she is also covered in chintz. Even if I hadn’t read the scene, I would bet the settee, not Jane, was upholstered in flowered print. But that’s not what the sentence says, thanks to that extra comma. It should read Perched on an antique settee covered in flowered chintz, Jane Character considered her next move.

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The most common comma problem I see in contest manuscripts, blogs, and even cover blurbs involves restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses (Strunk & White’s terminology in The Elements of Style, the 92-page compendium of grammar and punctuation every writer should have). All you really need is an example or two. Then you can make up your own mnemonic and tack it up on your bulletin board.

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A non-restrictive clause, set off by a pair of commas (a single comma is never the answer here), is not essential to the meaning of the sentence: My favorite romance writer, Marjorie Author, has a new release out this week. The sentence still works without the set-off clause: My favorite romance writer has a new release out this week.

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Restrictive clauses are essential to the meaning of the sentence, and are NOT set off by commas: The biggest gremlin-3author in the romance field has a new release out this week. If you remove the restrictive clause “in the romance field,” you might be talking about a best selling writer or the five-hundred-pound author of a new cookbook.

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People seem to have particular trouble with names: Romance writer Marjorie Author has a new release out this week. No commas. If you removed Marjorie Author, you would be left with a tabloid headline at best: Romance writer has a new release out this week. Important information has gone missing. In fact, the subject of the original sentence has gone missing, but this is the comma problem I see most often. The subject of this sentence is Marjorie Author, “romance writer” describes her, and no commas are needed.

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Non restrictive, two commas: Architect George Builder, who designed this building, forgot the elevator shafts.

Restrictive, no commas: The architect who designed this building forgot the elevator shafts.

Wrong, but all too common: Architect, George Builder, forgot the elevator shafts.

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In case you don’t have The Elements of Style on your reference shelf, the complete text, with more examples and explanations of a multitude of usage and style questions, is available on line at http://www.bartleby.com/141/.

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