Mastering Commas: Comma Rule 3

Comma Rule 3 probably doesn’t sound like fun, but it is. It goes by some boring and very technical names (appositive, non-restrictive clause, interrupter). The basic idea, though, is easy: Use a pair of commas when your voice drops. One comma takes your voice down, and another brings your voice back up.

Here’s a familiar example from Mission Impossible:

Your Mission, should you choose to accept it, is to expose the enemy’s plot. COMMA RULE 3


Easy, isn’t it?

But wait! I’ve got an even better example. Click on the link for Superman! and you’ll be able to hear a wonderful example of Comma Rule 3. Notice how the announcer’s voice goes down at the word who (comma) and comes up again at newspaper (comma). Turn on your speakers and listen for those two commas – it’s fun!

I never used any grammatical terminology when I taught Comma Rule 3 to my own students – it just intimidated them. Instead we played with voice-drop/rise sentences (which I always called “Superman” sentences), and students caught on quickly.

Here are some examples. I’ve marked the non-restrictive clause – sorry, the “Superman” – in red. But I’m betting you won’t need any extra help with these. (For best results, read them aloud, emphasizing the change in your voice):

Superman, disguised as Clark Kent, fights a never-ending battle for the American way. COMMA RULE 3

Although I’ll miss the best part of the trip, the tour of the White House, I’m looking forward to our visit to Washington. COMMA RULE 3

Writing a research paper, which I’ve always found difficult, is starting to get easier for me. COMMA RULE 3

George Reeves, who played Superman in the black-and-white series, was a terrific actor. COMMA RULE 3

You’ll find that often, but not always, the words who or which appear at the beginning of the interrupter (sorry – I meant the “Superman”). Try inventing some of these sentences yourself!

You can download a free handout with all three comma rules by clicking here.

2 thoughts on “Mastering Commas: Comma Rule 3

  1. Tom

    That is kind of a brilliant way to look at this, but the reasoning actually is backward, and not really helpful.

    The clause surrounded by commas is typically a secondary or an auxiliary idea. The parts on both sides are usually parts of the same primary idea. The speaker or writer’s goal is to emphasize the main idea, but they also want to get the secondary idea across. The voice dropping is a cue that the clause refers to a secondary idea which is not as important to get across as the main idea.

    So that is what is going on here. IOW, the clause is not surrounded by commas because the voice drops, the voice drops because the clause surrounded by commas is a secondary idea not as important as the primary idea, and dropping one’s voice is just a common way to express that.

    It helps you recognize the speaker’s intent, but it has very little to do with helping people understand how to punctuate clauses. If you read your sentence out loud and your voice drops in the middle clause, this indicates that you already know what the punctuation should be. If you don’t, your voice will not drop, and all there will be is confusion over why it sounds awkward to you.

    Another thing is that if your voice drops, you’ve interrupted the primary idea with a secondary idea, which is why it’s called an interrupter. But what this might indicate is that the author is asking the reader to consider two ideas at the same time. For the purpose of comprehension, it is often good to present one idea and then the other, so that they don’t have to juggle different concepts all at once. Like computers, people are capable of only one task at a time, so this makes reading more difficult.

  2. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Tom –
    I’m trying to understand how my explanation can be “brilliant” and “not really helpful” – at the same time!
    My position has always been that we shouldn’t – can’t, actually – teach students how to use language.
    They walk into a classroom with years of language experience. Teachers typically ignore all that experience and act as if they’re starting from scratch, having their first encounter with language. We patiently explain about primary and secondary ideas and show them how to punctuate them.
    Students listen politely and have no idea what we’re talking about.
    I tell my students that they’ve been doing this voice drop and rise all their lives. I show the Superman clip. We play with “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” – and bingo! They’ve got it.
    I’m assuming you – like me – have 30 years of success teaching developmental students. (I did it both in a prison school and a college.) I applaud you!
    But abstract ideas about language never worked for my students. I’m going to stick with what worked for me.

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