Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Perfect Punctuation: Our Comrade the Comma

Perk up, Persian Cat, commas aren't so cruel!

Our readers will recall how I revealed, last December, the mysterious and troubling powers of the dash. Now, we shall continue this Perfect Punctuation series with many writers' greatest hurdle: the comma!

Countless people feel as though comma rules are endless and uncertain, arcane and imperfect. To these writers, I implore greater punctuation patience. Instead of surrendering to comma catastrophes, let's just learn a little at time. Today, we're going to start with three easy comma rules from OWL:

Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

Many grammar-nerds such as myself refer to these coordinating conjunctions as the FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so! The beauty of coordinating conjunctions is that, when paired with a comma, they are as powerful as a period! So, I could say:
I love cats. They really don't care about me.
I love cats, yet they really don't care about me.
However, if the subject is the same on both sides (i.e. you don't have two independent sentences) then a comma is unnecessary:
I love cats fur. I really like how they generally disdain human interaction.
...If we combine them...
I love cats fur and really like how they generally disdain human interaction.
You see? No comma needed. That comma + FANBOYS tells the reader to expect a new subject (i.e. a new sentence). The exception to this rule is if the subsequent sentence is sufficiently short, like: "I like my wife and she likes me."

As the sentences grow in complexity and length, the necessity of that clarifying comma increases.

Follow the jump and watch your knowledge grow!
Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

The only exception to this rule is when we start a sentence with a simple, obvious time setting, such as "yesterday." Observe the different situations and the correct comma placements:
Now I'm much happier.

Last week, I watched my neighbor's cat rolling around on the balcony.

Not unlike many times before, I found myself scheming ways to capture that cat.

Lifting with all of my strength, I slung the window open.

As I pulled that grappling gun up to my shoulder, the police knocked on my door.
Note how the first sentence doesn't need a comma, but it would make just as much sense if it had one.

Those of us who can identify prepositional phrases are at an advantage here because we have the benefit of a more concrete rule: any time a prepositional phrase begins a sentence ("As before," "In my head," "Of these choices," etc.) a comma must follow.

Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

To this day, I struggle with these. Oftentimes, I will add the second comma (the "...one at the end to indicate the end of the pause") yet miss the first comma entirely. However, you, humble reader, would never know because I am the most adept of proofreaders -- when I want to be. So, let us continue our examination of examples:
The police, knowing my dastardly history, did not hesitate to draw their firearms.

I did not lower my grappling gun because I, on the other hand, had nothing to lose.

And, yes, I am just crazy enough to chance the fall.
Notice how these interjection clauses can come in many forms: present progressive verbs (-ing), prepositional phrases, and even emotion-conveying words like "yes" in sentence three.

What happens if we forget or dismiss these comma rules?

Rule 1:

You will look stupid. It honestly won't be too much less readable, but your professors and employers and coworkers and cell-mates will think you received your education in a barn. A barn of foolishness.

Rule 2:

Words will blend together and become unclear:
Tracking and capturing cats can it by any more fun?
The common reader will see "Tracking and capturing cats can..." and assume "Tracking and capturing cats" to be the subject. This, however, is tragically false.

Rule 3:

Like Rule 2, these commas help us understand the flow of the sentence and keep disparate ideas from blending together:
My neighbor familiar with my intentions to take his cat and the police had both seen me toting about my grappling gun earlier that day.
Whoa! Who am I kidnapping in that sentence? Well, I certainly don't think I intended to kidnap the police, but that's how the sentence reads on the first glance.

If these explanations and examples prove helpful, then give me a little meow in the comments section or, better yet, just use these comma rules when writing, and I will no doubt sleep better at night.

Bradley Woodrum also writes for Homebody and Woman and Cubs Stats.


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