Tag Archives: commas

Commas with “And”

I hear more questions about and than any other word! Commas – when to use one, and when to leave it out – are probably the biggest issue. So in today’s post I’m going to give you a simple tool for getting that comma right every time you use and.

(I need to add that there’s some wiggle room here. I’m still going to recommend my system because it completely eliminates the guesswork. I also need to tell you that I’m not talking about using commas in a list – the Oxford comma – today.)

Here’s a partial sentence about a picnic for you to think about:

We roasted marshmallows and a squirrel

Pretty nasty picnic! Now read this version:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel

You knew right away that the squirrel came to no harm..even though the only difference is a comma! Amazing, isn’t it?

Many people swear that they’re hopelessly confused about commas…but anyone who reads these two squirrel examples can instantly tell you that the squirrel in the second version is safe. Here’s how you might finish the sentence:

We roasted marshmallows, and a squirrel grabbed one.

Ah, the power of the comma! You already know how to use it. Yet many students are never exposed to the simple rule behind today’s examples: Use a comma when you join two sentences with and. (But works the same way, incidentally.)

Let’s look at another example. The only difference between the partial sentences below is a comma. Which sentence tells you that Betty was invited to the party?

We invited everyone to the party but Betty

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty

I’m willing to bet the farm that you knew right away that poor Betty was not invited in the first example. In the second example, she received an invitation but couldn’t come.

In traditional grammatical terms, you should use a comma whenever you use a coordinating conjunction to join two sentences. (Those are the FANBOYS words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.) 

In simpler terms, use a comma when you join two sentences with and or but. (The other FANBOYS words don’t come up very often.)

One more tip: Never put a comma after and or but. Notice the comma placement:

We invited everyone to the party, but Betty had to work Friday night.

You can download and print a free handout about commas at http://bit.ly/EasyCommas.

____________________________________________________________

Share

Oxford Comma

Sound the alarm: The Oxford Comma has met its demise.

Except that’s not really true. Turns out the Public Relations department at Oxford (not the entire University) is advising against the Oxford comma in its latest style sheet – a sensible decision, as it turns out (even though I, for one, love that comma).

First, let’s explain that the Oxford Comma is the last comma before and in a series of three or more. Here’s an example:

We served coffee, tea, and lemonade to our guests.  CORRECT

Oxford University has its own publishing company, and editors are instructed to use that comma.

Journalists, on the other hand, generally don’t use that comma. A newspaper reporter would write the sentence this way:

We served coffee, tea and lemonade to our guests.  CORRECT

Since the Public Relations department issues press releases to newspapers and magazines, it makes sense for them to omit that comma. But some commentators thought the whole University was dropping the comma, and…well, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so much anguish about a punctuation mark.

Why do I like that comma? I think it clarifies sentences and makes the reader’s job easier. For example, take a look at this partial sentence, and see if you can decide where it might be going:

Suddenly the car, passengers and all

I think you’d expect the sentence to turn out something like this:

Suddenly the car, passengers and all, rolled into a ditch.

But if you put that comma in, you can tell that the sentence is going somewhere else:

Suddenly the car, passengers, and all

Here’s the completed sentence:

Suddenly the car, passengers, and all their luggage rolled into a ditch.

I vote for the Oxford comma.

Share

Do You Hear What I Hear?

English teachers often talk about “interrupters” and the difference between “restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.” Because I like simplicity, I prefer to call these Comma Rule 3 sentences…and a number of people have told me they like the simplicity of dealing with only three comma rules for most sentences. (Click here to watch a short video about Comma Rule 3.)

Let’s try a quiz! Can you tell which sentences require commas? (Hint: Read them aloud and listen for voice changes. Voice drops indicate that you need commas.) Scroll down for the answers.

1. Women who wear a red carnation on Mother’s Day are honoring a mother still living.

2.  I will send a message to Jack Hokkinen who’s in charge of the meeting about your suggestion.

3.  Fifteen hours which is what I usually spend on the financial report wasn’t enough this month.

4.  Central Florida home of Walt Disney World is a great place for a winter vacation.

5.  We need to remind everyone who works in Human Resources about the new procedure.

Here are the answers:

1. Women who wear a red carnation on Mother’s Day are honoring a mother still living. (No commas: You’re referring only to women who wear red carnations)

2.  I will send a message to Jack Hokkinen, who’s in charge of the meeting, about your suggestion. (Use commas: “who’s in charge of the meeting” is extra information)

3.  Fifteen hours, which is what I usually spend on the financial report, wasn’t enough this month. (Use commas: “which is what I usually spend on the financial report” is extra information)

4.  Central Florida, home of Walt Disney World, is a great place for a winter vacation. (Use commas: “home of Walt Disney World” is extra information)

5.  We need to remind everyone who works in Human Resources about the new procedure. (No commas: You’re referring only to people who work in Human Resources)

Share

Although it drives me crazy

Many writers have difficulty punctuating sentences with although in them. I just came across the following badly punctuated sentence in an online political article:

One counter-protester, Leslie Taylor of Madison admitted, “I’m dying of curiosity to see what kind of people support Sarah Palin. Although, I’m seeing more protesters than supporters.”

Sigh. Anything beginning with “although” is an extra idea and needs to be glued on to a real sentence.

And there’s another problem: although should never be followed by a comma. (Also – not that I’m trying to be picky – there should be a comma after Madison.)

Here’s the corrected sentence:

One counter-protester, Leslie Taylor of Madison, admitted, “I’m dying of curiosity to see what kind of people support Sarah Palin although I’m seeing more protesters than supporters.” CORRECT

(To learn more about these commas, click here. Comma Rule 1 deals with although and similar words; Comma Rule 3 explains why you need a comma after Madison.)

Share

Why We Need Commas

I’m on a Lawrence Block reading kick – I love his mystery novels about Matthew Scudder, a New York detective who spends much of his free time at AA meetings.

The books are well written and fun to read, but once in a while Block and his copyeditor miss a comma or two. I want to spend a few minutes looking at problem sentence from the mystery I’m reading right now, The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

(Background:  Lisa Holtzmann, the widow of a man who was just murdered, is reminiscing about their relationship.)

Read along with me, and try to watch your brain at work. (I know that sounds crazy – but try it!)

When we met Glenn

You’re picturing a couple of people meeting Glenn, right? Wrong! Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville

Oops! She’s saying something different: When she and Glenn met, he had an apartment in Yorkville.

Let’s keep reading:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and

So Glenn had a studio apartment and something else, right?

Oops! Wrong again. Read on:

When we met Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville and of course I was still on Madison Street.

Two commas, correctly placed, would clear up all the confusion, and you’d know immediately what Lisa was trying to say.

Here’s the sentence one more time, correctly punctuated. Notice how much easier it is to read:

When we met, Glenn had a studio apartment in Yorkville, and of course I was still on Madison Street. CORRECT

To learn more about Comma Rule 1 (the first comma) and Comma Rule 2 (the second comma), click here. You can also watch a short video by clicking here.

Share

The “Although” Problem

Fewer and fewer people seem to know how to use “although” correctly. I see writing like this all the time:

We’re making good progress on the new addition to our house. Although, the flooring is taking longer than we expected. WRONG

Although always introduces an extra idea. It’s not a substitute for however. If you write an although idea, make sure there’s a sentence to go with it:

Although the flooring is taking longer than we expected, we’re making good progress on the new addition to our house. CORRECT

Here are two other correct ways to do it:

We’re making good progress on the new addition to our house. However, the flooring is taking longer than we expected. CORRECT

We’re making good progress on the new addition to our house although the flooring is taking longer than we expected. CORRECT

And here are a few more examples. I’ve made these shorter and simpler, but they work the same way:

Although I enjoyed the movie, I don’t want to see it again. CORRECT

Barry still has plenty of energy although he worked the late shift last night. CORRECT

Notice:

  • It’s NEVER correct to put a comma after although.
  • An although idea is incomplete and always needs to be attached to a complete sentence.

Simple enough, right?

One more reminder: Don’t use although as a synonym for however. Take a look at this sentence:

The job offer is tempting. Although, I don’t want to leave New York. WRONG

Here are two ways to fix it:

The job offer is tempting although I don’t want to leave New York. CORRECT

The job offer is tempting. However, I don’t want to leave New York. CORRECT

Although many people make mistakes with although, you won’t have any problems from now on!

To learn more, click here and read about Comma Rule 1.

Share

Comma Rule 1: Commas with Introductory Ideas

I haven’t been able to confirm the story I’m about to tell. But it’s so useful when you’re learning commas that I’m going to tell it anyway.

Years ago a wealthy man is supposed to have won a lawsuit against Western Union because of a missing comma. Here’s what happened:

He was away on business when his wife telegraphed him for permission to buy an expensive piece of jewelry.

When she got his telegram – “No price too high” – she went ahead and bought the jewelry. He got home from the trip, found out she’d indeed made the purchase, and sued.

Here’s the message he’d intended to send: “No, price too high.” Big difference!

It’s a great story to illustrate the importance of punctuation, and a great excuse to remind you about Comma Rule 1: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an extra idea.

(Or: Use a comma when a sentence begins with an introduction. Take your pick: The two rules amount to the same thing.)

Here are some examples for you to mull over (suggestion: Read the sentences aloud). All these sentences are correct:

I picked up the dry cleaning this afternoon. CORRECT

Jane, I picked up the dry cleaning this afternoon. CORRECT  (“Jane” is extra)

Jane picked up the dry cleaning this afternoon. CORRECT

No dogs are permitted in the lobby. CORRECT

No, dogs are permitted in the lobby. CORRECT  (“No” is extra. Can you hear that this is probably the answer to a question about the rule about dogs?)

To learn more about Comma Rule 1, click here. And did you notice that the previous sentence is a perfect example of a Comma Rule 1 sentence?

Share