Monday, July 04, 2005

An Unkindness of COMMAS

I SUCK at using commas big-time. I tend to pull a "Mark Twain"; I sprinkle them wherever, to break up the monotony of the sentence. This article is my attempt to hammer the rules into my brain. Think it'll work?

What the heck are Commas for, anyway?

Besides abusing the sanity of the writer, the comma exists to help readers organize information in a sentence. It makes all the stuff the author is trying to say, easier to swallow. Without them, sentence bits and pieces collide into one another, causing confusion; rather like a train-wreck, though not nearly as exciting.

To get a good idea of how the comma is used, let's take a look at what it’s supposed to do, and some major screw-ups.

Doing it Right

1. Commas separate items in a Series.
  • The werewolf had fleas, a couple of ticks, and a very slight case of mange.

2. Commas separate two independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so...,)
And the comma goes IN FRONT of the word -- not behind it!
  • Several vampires were writhing on the dance floor, and a dozen more were scattered about the bar.

3. Commas set off introductory clauses and phrases.
  • When the gargoyle crashed through the plate glass window, the housewife handed him the broom to clean up his mess.

4. Commas set off non-restrictive (non-essential) clauses, phrases, and modifiers from the rest of the sentence.
The restrictive (essential) clause:
  • Two fallen angels dangling from the church tower were throwing rotten tomatoes at the gargoyles.
Non-restrictive (non-essential) clause:
  • Chateau Dracula, located in the green hills of Tuscany, hosted the new vampire prince’s inauguration.
5. Commas separate descriptive modifiers of equal rank.
If you can use your adjectives interchangeably, and can put in an "and" between them, you can put a comma there instead. Fair Warning: Some editors will prefer an "and".
  • The Court simply could not predict the next activity of the fickle, explosive vampire prince's mom.
6. Commas set off parenthetical expressions.
(Stuff that could be put in parentheses, but isn’t.)
  • The werewolf council members, you may recall, voted themselves a 35 percent pay increase last year.
7. Commas are used when the absence of a pause can cause confusion.
  • For the ghosts that haunted the chateau, moving the chairs around in the dining room was exhausting work.
8. Commas are used to set off participle phrases that modify some part of the independent clause.
  • Participal Phrase = Stuff in a sentance, that can't be a sentence by itself.
  • Independent Clause = Stuff in a sentence, that can be a sentence all by itself.
Full Translation: Commas set off the stuff at the end of the sentence, that changes the meaning of the stuff at beginning of the sentence.
  • The Vampire Court adjourned, having successfully defeated the bill that would have taxed imported medical blood.

Doing it Wrong

1. DON’T use a comma to separate two independent clauses WITHOUT a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so...,).Doing this makes a nasty "comma splice".
  • The inflation rate dipped to 3 percent, the unemployment rate stayed constant.

Instead of a Comma…
a. Use a semicolon (;)
  • The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent; the werewolf population rate stayed constant.
b. Those too chicken to try a semicolon, may use a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, so...,) with a comma BEFORE it.
  • The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent, but the werewolf population rate stayed constant.
c. Using a period (.) is another option.
  • The number of vampires dropped by 3 percent. The werewolf population rate stayed constant.

2. Don’t use a comma to introduce a subordinate clause.
Putting a comma before the word "because" is one of the biggest offenders.
  • The vampire princess decided to visit the protest site because she needed a first hand report.
But...! If the subordinate clause is being used to introduce the sentence, a comma does go at the end of the introductory phrase.
  • Because she needed a firsthand report, the vampire princess decided to visit the protest site.

3. Don’t use a comma to separate a noun or pronoun from its reflexive.
  • The werewolf king will discipline the pack himself.
4. Don’t use a comma between a word and a phrase to create a "false series."
A confusing False Series:
  • The archeologists discovered seven bodies, six medieval knights, and one court jester.
(WOW! That’s a lot of bodies!)

In proper perspective with an Em Dash ( -- )
Some people put spaces on either side of the em-dash, some don't. Ask your editor what they prefer.
  • The archeologists discovered seven bodies -- six medieval knights, and one court jester. (With spaces)
  • The archeologists discovered seven bodies--six medieval knights, and one court jester. (Without spaces.)
5. Don't use a comma in front of a partial quotation.
  • The candidate for court wizard charged that the incumbent was "a charlatan of the lowest order."
BUT...! If the quotation is a full sentence, you DO use a comma – in front of it:
  • The incumbent for court wizard remarked, "How would you like to spend the rest of your existence as a leaky pot?"

Do the following sentences need commas? When? Where, and WHY?

1. Teratology the study of deformities derives its name from the Greek word for monster.

2. Hearing the wolf howl caused Zach to look up in anticipation and delight.

3. Gothic music has a distinctly European sound yet it has often received more attention in Tokyo than in Paris.

4. All roads may lead to Rome but the vampire and his designated victim got hopelessly lost trying to drive there from Naples.

5. Dracula Tower one of the finest examples of soaring art deco yet gothic architecture in North America is located in New York New York.

6. The most hard working of all the haunts in the chateau she despaired when others received substantially higher praise.

7. You know I can't tolerate such behavior Vladimir.

8. Exhausted and penniless the vampire stared at the brightly lit interior imagining a warm fire a bed with clean white linens and a willing Reubenesque victim wearing nothing but handcuffs and a smile.

9. It was a charming older home whose medieval decor enhanced its gothic character.

I DON'T expect you to submit the answers to the Teasers! Those are for YOU to play with.

For more on Commas, also see:
COMMAS - The (Not-So) Quick & Dirty Guide
Compiled by Erin Mullarkey, Editor of Loose Id Books

Morgan Hawke


  1. WOW! I love this. Am blogging it.
    Everyone should read it. You are so smart.

    However, I hate semi-colons. Just make those darn things two sentences. LOL!

    Let me add this. Good work. Very good work.

  2. I am so having my future students come here. lol I love the examples. I spend far too much time correcting such errors on the student papers. Argh!

    And I agree with Janie, I HATE semi-colons. Dunno why, but I do.

  3. Once again I come beneath your shadow and am awestruck by the things I should have learned in school,(comma) but didn't.

  4. Hell,
    - I didn't learn it in school either. In fact, I came very close to failing English. I barely graduated high school.

    Morgan Hawke

  5. Ah, if only grammar as taught in grade school had been fed to us in a form as palatable as this. ;) You pointed out a few tips and trip-ups I didn't even know. Thanks!