Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Perfect Punctuation: Our Comrade the Comma (pt. 2)

I Googled "Comma Kitty" and got this image. Courtesy of Flickr.

In our previous romp through the oft-trodden Comma Land, we examined OWL's first three quick and easy comma rules:
1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

3. 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.
Now, let us continue this essential examination of practical punctuation with the next three rules:

4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses)...

This is our first "do not" rule. Now we must resist that chocolate-like temptation of slinging commas wildly throughout a sentence. Generally, if we write the word that, then we must refrain from putting a comma as its neighbor. For instance:
WRONG: I want a cat, that is bigger than me.
The above comma creates this weird, robotic break in the flow of the sentence. The that is referring directly to the cat right next to it and does not need a comma:
RIGHT: I want a cat that is bigger than me.
This can be kind of difficult because a lot of times which and that are interchangeable, but different rules can apply to which. For instance:
RIGHT: I want a cat which is bigger than me.
...Is still correct, but if the target of which switches to something else, the sentece becomes incorrect:
WRONG: I want a cat which might conflict with my wife's allergies.
Now it sounds like I am deliberately trying to sabotage my dear wife's immune system. Instead, I want which to target the verb want rather than cat, so I add a comma:
RIGHT: I want a cat, which might conflict with my wife's allergies.
Now the which clause becomes an afterthought, and the sentence now correctly indicates that I want a cat, but it might conflict with my wife's allergies.

5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

Lists! Everyone should have a good idea about this rule. Basically, if we list three or more things, we need commas like so:
I will name my cats Ramble, Xerxes, and McTavish.
Some people may be more comfortable leaving out the Oxford comma, the last comma before the and, but I prefer using the Oxford comma because: (a) Vampire Weekend has a song about it and (b) it helps clarify lists like this:
Great band names include Peanut Butter and Jello, Sunny and Share, and Jose and the Pushy Cats.
Without the Oxford comma, we have serious trouble identifying where Sunny and Share ends and Jose and the Pushy Cats ends.

6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

This is fancy lawyer talk for the simple rule: If we can put and there, then we can put a comma there. Examples:
My wise and chubby cat greeted me with a mystically small and gray hairball.
...Can be written:
My wise, chubby cat greeted me with a mystically small, gray hairball.
Note how there is no comma needed between mystically and small because mystically is describing the word small and not the hairball. Because these sentences are fun to write, here is one more:
My timely, fat cat waddled into the kitchen just as I retrieved the steaming, savory turkey from the oven.

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


  1. I love that kitty, because it looks like a comma.

  2. Danny, I couldn't agree more; but I'll try anyway: I love that kitty a lot, because it looks very much like a comma and a kitty at the same time.