Grammar Hammer: A Comment About Commas

http://static.someecards.com/someecards/usercards/9d1f4b46e01b8c5f16113c3a04ee5ca9b8.pngIn the two short weeks I’ve been writing this column, I’ve found there is no end to the grammatical bugaboos that frustrate writers.  Last week, some friends of mine started a rant on Facebook citing a number of grammatical infractions they encounter daily. One of the key pet peeves that hit that thread was the misuse of the comma.

Grammarly recently polled over 1,700 of its Facebook fans on what piece of punctuation they are most “thankful” for in their writing.  Overwhelmingly, English writers are most thankful for the comma (45 percent).  The misuse of commas is also among the top grammar mistakes that writers around the world are making, according to Grammarly’s research.

I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the four most common mistakes involving the comma.

  1. Not including a comma before a coordinating conjunction (43% of all comma mistakes among Grammarly users.) When a coordinating conjunction connects two independent clauses, it should be accompanied by a comma (if the two independent clauses are brief, many writers will omit the comma, but it is always correct to include a comma in this case). “I need to clean the house before I get my Christmas tree, but I’d rather go out for drinks with the girls instead.”
  2. Comma misuse in an introductory phrase (8 percent.) Common starter words for an introductory phrase that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while.“While I was eating, the cat jumped on the table and knocked over the vase.”You should also include a comma after participial and infinitive phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential appositive phrases, and long prepositional phrases (over four words).

    “Having finished my column before the deadline, I treated myself to a latte from Starbucks.”

    Finally, you should include a comma after common introductory words such as yes, however, well.

    “Well, I’m sure the cat didn’t really mean to knock over the vase.”

  3. Comma misuse inside a compound subject (7 percent.) I’m sure many of you have seen advertisements for law firms or pharmaceuticals and the phrases that begin, “If you, or a loved one, has [been injured on the job] or [developed mesothelioma] …” that is an example of a compound subject.  Which is it — If you have been injured or if a loved one has developed mesothelioma? The writer’s intent is that either you or a loved one is in need of such a service.   Remove the commas, they don’t belong there.
  4. Comma misuse around interrupters (6 percent.) This is one that I see occasionally in news releases as part of the Customer Content Services Team at PR Newswire.  Interrupters are modifiers that comment upon a noun. We enclose them in commas because they are not essential to the meaning of the main clause. We see this most often as a noun appositive in a news release: “John Smith, president and CEO of ABC, Inc., announced today the signing of a contract with XYZ Company.”Another example of an interrupter is an adjective clause or participial phrase:

    “Jane, whom you met last night, is up for an award at next week’s conference.”

    “Dr. Michael Jones, named as last year’s top doctor, has been promoted to Chief Resident.”

    Remember that these interrupters are not essential to the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

According to Grammarly, there are 28 different types of comma mistakes that English writers can make. Yet, not including a comma before a coordinating conjunction—and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet—is six times more common than any other! What are your most common comma mistakes?

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is Manager of Customer Content Services at PR Newswire.

5 responses to “Grammar Hammer: A Comment About Commas

  1. Great article Catherine.

    The one I always get people disagreeing with me about how to use a comma in a list of items.

    Example: “I had to pick up pickles, ham, and eggs at the supermarket.”

    I always use the comma after the second to last item in the list, while others (namely some of my son’s English teachers) say that a comma there is not correct. But, then it would be ham and eggs (as in the combo). (Notice how I put a comma after the word “but”? I wouldn’t have necessarily done so prior to reading your post.) What is your opinion on the list comma? Any advice you have on this would be great.

    And, I think your WordPress needs adjusting – there are (ironically) some spaces missing, (after each percent stat), as well as a backwards quotation mark in #1. But, I swear, I was not proofreading your column.(Really.)
    ;) Monique

  2. I grossly overuse commas, especially when I’m writing a school paper. I always have to go back through and delete a bunch of them. I’m not always clear on when to use them though, so generally I go with my gut.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Monique (and thank you for the compliment, Harold)!

    I’m an old-schooler at heart and have always advocated the use of the serial comma before the second to last item in a list. I think it adds clarity. Let’s say, for example, I was bringing chex mix, gingerbread and raspberry muffins to the Christmas party. You wouldn’t know if I was bringing two types of pastries (gingerbread and raspberry muffins), or if I had concocted some weird gingerbread-raspberry pastry (which could be a thing, you never know).

    Grammatically speaking, it is mostly a style preference. Newspapers are always trying to save space, so they are most likely to ditch the final comma in a list. The only rule to apply is whether or not another meaning can be derived without the comma. “I went to see Sarah, my friend and my mentor.” vs. “I went to see Sarah, my friend, and my mentor.” — it’s the difference of seeing one person (Sarah, my friend and mentor), two people (Sarah, my friend = 1, my mentor = 2) or three different people (Sarah, my friend, and my mentor).

    I would never want to discredit an English teacher, so I will assume that they would also support the use of the serial comma to avoid confusion. But, if the placement of the comma causes too much brain drain, consider a rewrite for your sentence.

    I hope this helps and thank you for reading!

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