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Punctuation

The Comma: A Major Player

Punctuation helps readers identify clusters of words between and within sentences. Between sentences, the most common mark of punctuation is the period; within sentences, the most common mark is the comma.

Commas tell us how to read and understand sentences because they tell us where to pause. A correctly placed comma helps move readers from the beginning of a sentence to the end. A misplaced comma can create more confusion than a conversation with a teenager.

Here are the guidelines that govern comma use.

First Impressions Count

Use a comma after introductory and concluding expressions:

  • Use a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase. In each sentence, the introductory phrase is underlined.
  • Example: Along the route from the house to the woods, Hansel and Gretel left a trail of old lottery tickets.
  • Use a comma after an introductory participial phrase.
  • Example: Excited by their approach, the witch called her agent and decided to take a meeting.
  • Use a comma after an introductory subordinate clause.
  • Example: When Hansel and Gretel arrived, they were astonished to find the TV contract already prepared.
  • Use a comma after the greeting of an informal letter.
  • Examples: Dear Sammi, Dear Mudface,
  • Use a comma after phrases that show contrast.
  • Example: The neighbors return home at all hours, often drunk as skunks.
  • Use a comma at the close of any letter.
  • Examples: Yours truly, Sincerely, Yours until Niagara falls,
Quoth the Maven

Basically, commas are like spicy chilies or little children: A little goes a long way. The last thing you want are excess commas hovering over your writing like the Goodyear blimp over the Orange Bowl.

Sentence Interruptus

Use a comma after interrupting words and expressions.

  • Use a comma to set off interrupting words and expressions. The interrupting words are underlined in the following example.
  • Example: Windows, as you know, is the best $89 solitaire game you can buy.
  • Use a comma to set off words of direct address (words that tell to whom a remark is addressed). The words in direct address are underlined in the following example.
  • Example: Mr. Happy, did you know that “kitty litter” is throwing cats out a car window?
  • Use a comma with names and titles.
  • Example: Mr. Gary Goldstein, Editor
  • Use a comma to set off words in apposition (words that give additional information about the preceding or following word or expression). The words in apposition are underlined in the following examples.
  • Example: A light sleeper, my landlord is the first to awake when he hears the chains rattle.
  • Example: My landlord, a light sleeper, is the first to awake when he hears the chains rattle.
  • Use a comma to set off a nonessential clause (a clause that can be omitted without changing the sentence's basic meaning). The nonessential clause in underlined in the following example.
  • Example: Philosophy, a science that lets us be unhappy more intelligently, is being offered this semester at the local university.
  • Use a comma to separate items in a series.
  • Example: We bought marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate to make those delicious campfire treats.
You Could Look It Up

Words in apposition give additional information about the preceding or following word or expression.

Danger, Will Robinson

Never use commas to set off an essential clause, a clause that cannot be omitted. For example: Philosophy is the science that lets us be unhappy more intelligently.

Take My Word for It

The comma before and in a series of items is optional.

Danger, Will Robinson

Do not use a comma before the ZIP Code in an address. Also, on an envelope, the Post Office prefers no comma after the city, either. Just two spaces between both the city/state and state/ZIP.

In Media Res

Use a comma to set off parts of a sentence:

  • Use a comma to separate parts of a compound sentence. Use the comma before the coordinating conjunction. Remember: The coordinating conjunctions are and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet. The coordinating conjunction is underlined in the following example.
  • Example: The faucet stopped working, and the sink leaks.
  • Use a comma to set off a direct quotation.
  • Example: He said, “Lawyers are the larval form of politicians.”
  • Example: “Lawyers,” he said, “are the larval form of politicians.”
  • Use a comma to separate the parts of an address.
  • Example: She lives at 763 Main Street, Farmingdale, New York 11735.

Dazed and Confused

Use commas to prevent misreading:

  • Use a comma to clarify any potentially confusing sentences.
  • Huh: To get through a tunnel must be dug.
  • Revised: To get through, a tunnel must be dug.

Of course, you're usually much better off just revising the sentences so there is no possibility of a chowderhead misreading your words.

Danger, Will Robinson

Do not use commas when writing telephone numbers, page numbers, or years.

Bean Counters

Use commas with numbers:

  • Use a comma between the day of the month and the year.
  • Examples: December 7, 1941, July 20, 1969
  • Use commas to show thousands, millions, and so on.
  • Examples: 1,000; 10,000; 100,000; 1,000,000

Constant Commas

Add commas as necessary in the following sentences.

  1. Even though it is not among the top rated shows shown on a single night The Wizard of Oz is generally considered the most successful single program in TV history.
  2. My friend Stephan a very picky eater refuses to eat any vegetables at all.
  3. A child who is under the age of eight should not be left alone without a sitter.
  4. A mature child of 10 or 11 however can usually be trusted home alone.
  5. Among the top man-made attractions in the United States are the Golden Gate Bridge Mount Rushmore the Statue of Liberty and Hoover Dam.
  6. Let's find a fast cheap restaurant.
  7. The Academy Awards were first telecast on March 19 1953.
  8. No you can't pile up 10000 bricks and try to climb to the roof.

Answers

  1. Even though it is not among the top rated shows shown on a single night, The Wizard of Oz is generally considered the most successful single program in TV history.
  2. My friend Stephan, a very picky eater, refuses to eat any vegetables at all.
  3. No commas at all.
  4. A mature child of 10 or 11, however, can usually be trusted home alone.
  5. Among the top man-made attractions in the United States are the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and Hoover Dam.
  6. Let's find a fast, cheap restaurant.
  7. The Academy Awards were first telecast on March 19, 1953.
  8. No, you can't pile up 10,000 bricks and try to climb to the roof.
book cover

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Grammar and Style © 2003 by Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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