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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Commas and common sense


The comma is a powerful punctuation mark with an impressive array of uses. No matter how the comma is used, its purpose is to make the meaning clear. Authors struggling with a gray area of comma usage should consider the meaning they hope to convey and make the choice that seems best. Clarity always wins out over strict adherence to comma rules.
Lynne Truss explains in her book on punctuation -- Eats, Shoots & Leaves -- how the superfluous comma can create havoc. The title of her book illustrates the author’s point when she tells the story of a panda.

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Obviously, the panda doesn’t consider that the sentence might contain an extra comma! And Lynne Truss says: “So, punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.”

Most superfluous commas will not change the meaning of a sentence that drastically. In fact, most do not change the meaning at all. They just make us to pause when a pause is neither needed nor wanted.

I know this is a provocative topic. I can’t think of anything that gets writers and editors more fired up than debating the pros and cons of the serial comma. And, as author Lynne Truss says, “Never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

Also, I don’t argue for or against the use of the serial comma. I just want to point out that the rules for this particular punctuation mark varies from style guide of one media to another. The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is the mark that appears before the conjunction in a list. “I don’t want to hear any whining, complaining, or name-calling.” The comma before the “or” is the serial comma.

Some style guides, such as the AMA Manual of Style and the Chicago Manual of Style, advocate for the use of the serial comma to avoid ambiguity. For example, a serial comma in the following sentence would make its meaning more clear: “Please state name, age, sex and housing requirements.”
Other style guides, as the AP Style Guide, say to avoid the serial comma. One argument for leaving the comma out is that it’s unnecessary in simple sentences, and leaving it out often does not change the meaning of the sentence. The classic example: “The flag is orange, white and green.”

The media I worked in India followed AP style and we never used the serial comma, but here, I mean in the Middle East, I see most media using the serial comma. What I have learnt is using the commas and not using them at the right place -- an unbreakable punctuation rule during my education – is really a style choice. All I have to do is adjust my style accordingly. It’s more like unlearning the learning. No matter where we stand in the serial comma debate, it is essential to stay flexible and apply the rules according to the “in house style” of the publication or website for which we write.
Here are a few articles on commas, which I read and enjoyed. Of course, these made me to remember my grammar teachers and journalism gurus. Then, I will start first with the one written by a journalism professor.
Ranly's rules for those pesky commas
Journalism professor Don Ranly sets us straight on why and when to use commas.

If you’ve spent some time editing copy or working around writers, you’ve discovered at least three attitudes people have regarding commas.

1. Those who hate commas. They quote Mark Twain as saying, “As to the comma, when in doubt, leave it out.” I don’t think Twain ever said that. He did say, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, leave it out.” That’s a bit different. These comma haters take commas out whenever ever they can, or they go by the ridiculous rule, place a comma only where you want the reader to pause. How dumb is that!

Now if the subject of commas makes you comatose, for heaven’s sakes, stop reading this. If you don’t care about being correct and consistent in your use of commas, there’s nothing I can do for you. Go away.

2. Those who use commas for no particular reason other than that they feel better—or that they take them out because they feel better. The sentence seems to need them or doesn’t seem to need them.

3. And those who put commas everywhere. They love them. They will separate every set of adjectives and every compound subject and compound predicate with a comma every time.

I hope to persuade those of you who don’t think so that there are clear guidelines for many of the uses of the comma—guidelines that you can use every day of your writing and editing life. I shall go through these guidelines one by one, and then in the end, I shall present a page that I have given thousands of students and attendees of my seminars over the years.

Now I am not denying that you might have been taught different rules or that grammar books, even good ones, might have different guidelines that those I shall give you. What I promise you is that my rules are practical and for the most part, quite simple to follow. Most of all, they will enable you and your staff to be on the same page when you edit copy.

Staffs waste an enormous amount of time and energy when they don’t have guidelines. One person puts the comma in, the next person takes it out, and the battle continues. Nonsense.

Ranly’s rules: Punctuating for consistency
1. Always place a comma after words in a series but not before and or or unless the meaning is unclear. So there you go. The first rule is not an always. It also contradicts what many if not most of us were taught in grammar school about so-called “serial commas.” The rule comes from the Associated Press. You need not follow it—but why not?
Here’s an example AP cites as an exception: “I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

2. Always place a comma after an introductory dependent clause in a complex sentence. I know, that’s a mouthful. But it’s all a matter of vocabulary. Words and putting together words are what writers and editors work with.
Suppose you were in an operating room, and the surgeon said to a nurse, “Hand me that sharp thing over there. I don’t know what you call it.” Wow. Or if a carpenter wanted to drive in a nail and asked someone to hand him that thing with the steel head on it. Not too professional, eh?

Yet writers sometimes brag about not knowing grammar. They rely on editors to catch their errors and save them from embarrassment. The usual statement is, “Well, I used to know it.” Well, maybe.

A student once asked me why I called a word a gerund. I told him: “I don’t know. What do you want to call it? Why do you call a chair a chair?
If you don’t understand the words in Guideline No. 2, take a look at the definitions in the side bar. For most of you, this is just a refresher.

Here’s an example of a complex sentence that begins with a dependent clause.
Example: Since you began reading this, you have become more confused than ever.
Note the comma before the subject of the main clause. This is an every-time rule. There are NO exceptions.
Note, however, if the complex sentence begins with the independent clause, there is no comma before the dependent clause.
Example: You have become more confused than ever since you began reading this.

3. Always place a comma after an introductory independent clause in a compound sentence before the coordinating conjunction.
Example: She had a great grammar teacher in the seventh grade, and she has benefited from that experience all her life.
Note the comma before the and. Again, this is an every-time rule. There are NO exceptions. However, if the pronoun she did not follow the and, the sentence would not be compound, and it would not have a comma before the and.
Example: She had a great grammar teacher in the seventh grade and has benefited from that experience all her life.   
Here we do not have a compound sentence but a compound predicate. Never separate a compound predicate (or a compound subject) with a single comma.

Some vocabulary for the unwashed
A clause has a subject and a predicate.
A sentence is an independent clause. It can stand by itself; it expresses a complete thought.
There are three types of sentences:
A simple sentence has one or more subjects and one or more predicates.
A complex sentence has a dependent subordinate clause and an independent clause or a relative dependent clause and an independent clause.
A dependent clause usually cannot stand alone. It begins with a subordinating conjunction, words like until, after, if, because,
since, etc.
A relative clause cannot stand alone either. It begins with a relative pronoun: who, what, which, that.
A compound sentence has at least two complete sentences. They are either joined by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so), or, if the two complete thoughts are closely related, by a semicolon.
A complex compound sentence has at least one complex sentence and at least one independent clause.

I’m sure you agree that this is more than enough for my first column on commas. Warning: There’s more to come. Promise: It will get less complicated.  Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or disputes at ranlyd@missouri.edu or www.ranly.com. 
Don Ranly is professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism where he taught for 32 years. Ranly has worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, a weekly columnist, a radio host and television producer, director and host.
Commas Count: Necessary Commas
Frances Peck
(Volume 35, No. 4, 2002, page 9)

Ah, the comma. Doesn’t every wordsmith have some tiny wrinkles, etched somewhere in the mid-brow region, because of this capricious mark?

Nearly everyone has questions about the comma. Should we use a comma with and? What about after an introductory element? Is the comma even necessary today? Or is it a quaint, old-fashioned remnant of an era when readers had time to savour sentences, to pause between ideas instead of rushing madly onward, scanning for content before tackling the next task, as we so often do now?
It’s true that modern writers use commas more sparingly than their forebears. Pick up a novel by, say, Charles Dickens. Open it to any page and you will see them — dozens of commas, swarming through sentences like ants through spilled syrup. But things are different today. Today our commas, like our workplaces, like our very lives, are streamlined and economical, designed for speed and efficiency, not for lingering and reflection.

Still, some commas are as necessary today as ever. Properly placed commas enable readers to follow ideas and interpret meaning. Moreover, they prevent misreading. In the sentence Lynn, Massachusetts is an excellent location for our new headquarters, the omission of the comma after Massachusetts makes us think the author is assuring Lynn that Massachusetts is a great location.
The key to understanding the modern comma is to know when it’s required and when it’s not. This is no easy task; the guidelines for this minuscule mark fill dozens of pages in some texts. Thankfully, Sheridan Baker, author of The Practical Stylist, practically (as his title promises) divides necessary commas into four main categories:
  1. The Introducer after an introductory clause or phrase
  2. The Coordinator between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)
  3. The Inserter a pair around an inserted word or remark
  4. The Linker when adding a word, phrase or clause to the main sentence
The Introducer
With an introductory clause, the decision is easy: use a comma (remember, a clause is a group of words that contains both a subject and a verb).
  • After the hospital had completed its fundraising campaign, an anonymous donor contributed an additional $30,000. (introductory adverbial clause)
With an introductory phrase, the decision is harder (a phrase is a group of words that does not contain both a subject and a verb). If the phrase is relatively long, use a comma.
  • From the east wall to the west, the "dream cottage" advertised in the real estate brochure measured just twenty feet. (long prepositional phrase)
If the phrase is short and naturally flows into what follows, do not use a comma.
  • By midnight my new boyfriend was slavering and baying at the moon. (short prepositional phrase that flows on)
If the phrase is short but does not naturally flow into what follows, use a comma to show the separation. A comma is particularly important after an introductory participial phrase—one that contains the present participle ("-ing" form) or the past participle ("-ed" or irregular form) of a verb.
  • Seeing this transformation, I wanted to flee like the wind. (participial phrase)
  • Paralysed by fear, I stood transfixed while my friend lumbered forward, wild-eyed and hungry. (participial phrase)
  • Despite his fangs, I still thought my date was kind of cute. (phrase does not flow naturally into what follows)
  • Fearful yet curious, I debated what to do. (phrase does not flow naturally into what follows)
The introducer may also appear after an introductory word that does not flow directly into the rest of the sentence, especially after a sentence adverb (an adverb that modifies the entire sentence rather than just one word in it).
  • Fortunately, I still had the leftover rare steak I had taken away from our lavish dinner together, so I threw it in his path to distract him. (introductory adverb)
The Coordinator
Place a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses (clauses that can stand as sentences). Remember to put the comma before the conjunction, not after.
  • René wrapped the fresh fish in three layers of newspaper, but his van still smelled like trout for the next week. (two independent clauses)
If the independent clauses are short and closely related, it is preferable to omit the comma.
  • He chose the restaurant and she chose the movie. (short, related independent clauses)
It’s important to check that the coordinating conjunction is really joining two independent clauses and not two phrases.
  • The dog whipped his head around and caught the frisbee between his teeth. (two phrases)
The Inserter
Think of the two commas around insertions as detour signs: the first tells you where the detour begins, the second where it ends.
  • John Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, contains many of the themes and images that run through his later works. (insertion)
Sometimes it’s hard to decide if a group of words is an insertion. A true insertion interrupts, meaning you can usually remove it without changing the sentence’s main message. The grammatical term for an interrupting element is "non-restrictive." A non-restrictive element must be set off with a pair of commas.
  • The employees, who had finished their work, went home for the day. (main message: the employees went home for the day)
A restrictive element, on the other hand, does not interrupt the message; it is instead integral to it. Restrictive elements are not set off with commas.
  • The employees who had finished their work went home for the day. (main message: only the employees who had finished their work went home)
The Linker
Use a comma whenever you link extra (often non-restrictive) information to the main sentence. The added information often provides elaboration.
  • My sister loves low-budget horror movies from the fifties and sixties, especially those featuring killer vegetables from outer space. (added phrase)
  • The sea was like a boiling cauldron, even though the wind had abated hours earlier. (added clause)
Commas also link elements in a list or series.
  • Nathan took a radio, a hair dryer, the latest Vanity Fair and a canister of pepper spray on his first wilderness camping trip. (items in a list)
Should there be a comma before and in a list? It’s a perennial question, one that authorities differ on. The bottom line—either approach is acceptable. The modern tendency is to omit the comma unless it’s needed to prevent misreading.
  • Eileen’s favourite sandwiches are tuna, watercress, ham, and cheese and bacon. (comma needed before and for clarity)
A Pause for Reflection
Knowing when commas are needed is only half the battle; knowing when they’re not is the other. And between the two poles lies a vast and bewildering territory where comma use is subjective, dependent on such vagaries as authorial intent, emphasis, personal taste. So understanding the principles of necessary commas likely won’t erase our wrinkles (we’re not talking Botox here). But it may relax them, somewhat.

5 cases of mistaken meaning cured by a comma
The location of this oft-misused piece of punctuation has a significant impact on what message is conveyed, says Mark Nichol in this article. 
A simple lesson about the strength of the mighty little comma can be learned by noting the difference in meaning that results depending on its presence or absence at the end of a parenthetical phrase.

More specifically, in the types of sentences shown below, when an attributive phrase—one that identifies the source of the information provided in the framing sentence—is inserted in the midst of the sentence and a comma precedes the interjection but none follows it, what is said is often not equivalent to what is meant:

1. “Every nine years, it was decreed that the fragment must be conveyed to another place of sanctuary.”
The point of this sentence is that an action is described as having occurred every nine years, and that this action was decreed. That latter detail is the content of the attributive phrase. But without a comma closing the interjection, the implication is that the decree was issued every nine years.
However, what the sentence means is that a decree was issued requiring the action to occur every nine years—that’s a much different idea, and this slightly revised sentence correctly expresses it: “Every nine years, it was decreed, the fragment must be conveyed to another place of sanctuary.”

2. “By the end of the century, estimates are that one in three people will be living in poverty.”
This sentence is not as far afield from the intended meaning as the original sentence in the previous example, but it does suggest that such estimates will be released by the end of the century, rather than that current estimates predict the stated outcome.
This revision states the point more clearly: “By the end of the century, estimates are, one in three people will be living in poverty.”

3. “Instead of embracing our civil rights future, the commission’s report says the Bush administration has begun backsliding into the past.”
At first glance, this sentence seems to have the same not-quite-right structure of the second example, but it actually introduces a serious miscommunication. The suggestion is that the commission report, not the Bush administration, is failing to embrace our civil rights future, and that the commission is making the statement in place of that responsibility.

The mere insertion of a comma sets the sentence right (in this case, an optional that is not included, so no deletion of same is necessary): “Instead of embracing our civil rights future, the commission’s report says, the Bush administration has begun backsliding into the past.”

4. “Up to my junior year at the University of Michigan, I am forced to admit that I had always tried to get A’s.”
The writer, this sentence suggests, was forced to make an admission until reaching their third year of college, at which time the confession was no longer required (but in that case, am should be replaced by was).
But the admission is parenthetical to a different thought, which is that the writer strove for the highest letter grade for only their first two years in higher education: “Up to my junior year at the University of Michigan, I am forced to admit, I had always tried to get A’s.”

5. “As far back as his childhood, he told me he had wanted to be a scientist.”
As punctuated, this sentence tells the reader that the would-be scientist had shared his ambition with the writer since the other person had been a child. If this is what the writer means, the beginning of the second part of the sentence should include had (“he had told me”).
But if the writer is relating what the other person had shared more recently about his childhood goal, a comma should follow me to set off the attributive phrase “he told me”: “As far back as his childhood, he told me, he had wanted to be a scientist.”

This article originally ran on DailyWritingTips.com.
Comma chameleon: How it changes the color of your meaning
A look at the utility infielder of the punctuation team by Rob Reinalda.
The comma is such a little mark, but it can prompt big confusion—and heated debate—about its use.
There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in. (Believe me, we will not cover everything about commas here, but we’ll give it a shot.)

Compound sentences
A compound sentence comprises two independent clauses. Each clause has a subject and verb and could stand as a sentence unto itself. It takes a comma before the conjunction (and, but, or, etc.):
The dog barked at a cat, and the cat ran up a tree.
My uncle is sick, but the highway is green.
I can bring you along while I shop for shoes, or you can stay home and watch sports all day. (Decisions, decisions …)

In the following case, the dog is the subject of both verbs, so there should be no comma:
The dog barked at a cat but didn’t chase it. (You would use a comma if it were structured this way: The dog barked at a cat, but he didn’t chase it.)
Here we have modifying phrases for the cat. 
The dog barked at a cat, which then ran up a tree.
The dog barked at the cat that had run up the tree.
(Here, the modifying phrase specifies a particular cat. There may have been other cats, but the pooch barked at the one up the tree. No comma.)

Often we see commas misplaced in sentences with a complex predicate and a modifying phrase:
Wrong: The dog barked at the cat, and for no apparent reason, ate a cantaloupe.
Correct: The dog barked at the cat and, for no apparent reason, ate a cantaloupe.
(The reason is abundantly clear, of course; the dog is a melon collie.)
Then there is the dreaded comma splice. This occurs when two independent clauses are separated by a comma with no conjunction.
Wrong: The cat barked at the dog, it traumatized the poor pooch.
Either add a conjunction or substitute a semicolon; I prefer the latter.
The cat barked at the dog, and it traumatized the poor pooch.
The cat barked at the dog; it traumatized the poor pooch.

Noun of direct address
Set this off with a comma or two, depending on its placement in the sentence:
Xavier, I’ll be out of the office on Tuesday.
Please call me if anything urgent arises, Xavier.
I’ll be off Tuesday, Xavier, so please don’t do anything stupid in my absence.

Supplemental information
In the following casesthe last two are appositives—the information set off by a comma or commas is important content but not essential to the structure of the sentence:
Natalie, who does yoga every weekend, has never undergone major surgery.
Godfrey, an amateur taxidermist, has dreams about opening a cafe.
An accomplished xylophonist, Darryl frequently is asked to perform at funerals.
When setting off an appositive midsentence—such as a title or job description—don’t forget the second comma before proceeding with the predicate.

Descriptive versus identifying modifiers
My brother Jeremiah has a unicycle with training wheels. (This presupposes I have more than one brother.)
My sister, Calliope, enjoys writing heroic poetry and playing the steam organ. Here the commas indicate that I have only one sister.
The same follows for corporate writing:
Gloopnox Corp.’s director of marketing, Leonardo Gloopnox, has been with the company six weeks. He’s the company’s one and only marketing director. (He’s also the CEO’s son.)
Vexco marketing coordinator Lila Langerhans recently announced plans to tweeze her eyebrows. No commas if she’s one among several with that job designation.
Note, too, the following instances:
This summer I’ll be traveling to the city where I was born.
This summer I’ll be traveling to Walla Walla, where I was born.
The term “the city” needs amplification for the purposes of identification.“Walla Walla” could stand on its own, but the phrase that follows the commas delivers supplemental information.

Dependent clauses
Here we have instances of a dependent clause that precedes and modifies an independent clause:
If  I win the lottery, I’ll send my whole family to Europe—one-way.
Because the smell of maple syrup makes me queasy, I avoid going into pancake houses.
After Melvin detained Gregory and caused him to be late for his shift in the coal shaft, Melvin was accused of contributing to the delinquency of a miner.
How about the following?
In 2009 the senator voted to filibuster on 53 occasions.  In 2005, that same senator called filibusters “obstructionist.”
Why the comma in the second instance?  I suppose it’s a judgment call, but to my mind it emphasizes a contradiction in the senator’s two positions; it’s shorthand for “however.”
Certainly, one might just add “however” and make it explicit:
In 2005, however, that same senator called filibusters “obstructionist.”

The series
What follows is a long yet simple series; commas alone can do the job:
I went shopping for eggs, coaxial cable, an electric pencil sharpener, macadamia nuts, a lathe, a pocket calculator, three pounds of figs, a post hole digger, radicchio and a pewter corkscrew. 

In the following, there is a series of series, so, for the sake of clarity, the groupings are set off with semicolons:
I went shopping for eggs, radicchio, macadamia nuts and three pounds of figs for tonight’s dinner; a post hole digger, coaxial cable and a lathe for some weekend projects; and a pocket calculator, an electric pencil sharpener and a pewter corkscrew to bring to work. (A corkscrew? Judge not, lest ye be judged.)

A series of modifiers
The modifiers can be adverbs:
Garth hastily, sloppily, noisily ate his papaya and smelt sandwich. (“And” could sub in for that second comma, if you like.)
They can also be adjectives:
Maximilian is a loud, uncouth, malodorous, vindictive philatelist.
At least he has a hobby.
There are three fat, brown, male dachshunds on the porch.

In this sentence, note that the more elemental the trait, the closer it is to what it modifies. The number is most easily changed—pick up a dachshund (at your peril, of course)—and remove it, and the number changes. The doggies could lose weight; that’s a variable, too. Brown—well, some pet salons do perform dye jobs. But even if neutered, a male dog remains a he.

Also note that no comma is placed between the number and the other modifiers. In some election stories, you might see this: Five candidates are vying for three, three-year seats on the council. That comma after three is no more necessary than it is in the sentence about the dachshunds.

Also notice that in this sentence from before—But even if a male dog is neutered, he remains a he.—there is no comma immediately after “But.” 

Some people prefer the serial or Harvard comma; some abhor it. Generally it’s unnecessary with a simple series. Garner’s Modern American Usage recommends it: “… omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.” In business writing, it can come in handy, particularly when the series at hand includes compound elements:
Please notify the people in charge of security, operations, IT, legal affairs, internal and external communications, employee recruitment and retention, research and development and marketing and advertising.

Adding a comma after “development” eliminates potential ambiguity about the number and descriptions of the last entities mentioned.
Please notify the people in charge of security, operations, IT, legal affairs, internal and external communications, employee recruitment and retention, research and development, and marketing and advertising.

Do you come across such contrivances often (other than in articles about punctuation, that is)?  Probably not. When you do, diverting from established style for the sake of clarity is fine. You’d rather hear the question, “Egad! Why is Magdalena diverting from her established style on serial commas?” than, “What in heaven’s name is Magdalena talking about?”

An either/or question
Do you want what Jay has in the box, or what’s behind the curtain where Carol Merrill is standing?
Without the comma, you could answer, “yes”—meaning you want either of those things.
With the comma, the mandate to choose between the options is implicit: Do you want what Jay has in the box, or [do you want] what’s behind the curtain where Carol Merrill is standing?

Quoted matter
There’s a difference in the way generic and specific utterances are handled, as is shown below:
“All I want in response is a simple ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir,’” Adele said.
“When I ask you if you’d like more tiramisu, just say, ‘No, thank you, sir,’” Adele told Vincent.
Sometimes you’ll have a quotation that looks like this: “I’m drowsy,” Susie said. “And no amount of coffee seems to help.”
Susie’s statement is a compound sentence, and it should be treated as such: “I’m drowsy,” Susie said, “and no amount of coffee seems to help.”

It must be all this pedantry about commas. Susie’s nearly comma-tose.
OK, we’re almost done.

Addresses and dates, cities and states
Mr. Brady went to a party at 148 Bonny Meadow Road, New Rochelle, N.Y.
Oh, what a night I had in December 1963. (No comma between the month and year if a day is not specified.)
On Feb. 29, 2000, I told Randall to take a flying leap. 
Velma drove to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then to Altoona, Pa.

In letters
Unless you are writing a formal letter, in which you would use a colon at the end of the salutation — Dear Sir or Madam: or To the Editor: — you would use a comma after the recipient’s name:
Dear Mephistopheles, 
At the end of the letter, a comma would come after the signoff and before your name:
Eternally yours,
Faust
Cancelling Commas: Unnecessary Commas
Frances Peck
(Volume 36, No.1, 2003, page 25)

This is the second of two articles on commas. See "Commas Count: Necessary Commas" in the December issue.

One of the best sentences in Strunk and White’s classic writing guide, The Elements of Style, is this: "A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts."

I would go further: a sentence should contain no unnecessary commas for the same reason that a symphony should have no unnecessary pauses. True, commas add rhythm, and more importantly clarity, to our writing, something we saw in "Commas Count" in the December issue. But, if we use too many, of them, our writing becomes difficult, for people, to read, and our ideas end up fragmented, instead of connected.

For years participants in my grammar and writing workshops have magnanimously imparted their golden rule for commas: use a comma whenever you would take a breath. And for years I have regretfully but pointedly burst their bubble. That simple rule, which so many have clung to since their tender years, works occasionally (even often, if you’re a speechwriter or playwright), but it also gives rise to the superfluous commas that pollute our prose, bobbing up disconcertingly like plastic bottles in the waves.
While comma use is sometimes a matter of personal taste—something we’ll look at later—there are certain places where this mark does not belong.

Splitting grammatical bonds
What grammar hath joined together, let no comma put asunder. Don’t let a comma split the grammatical bond between a subject and its verb, a verb and its object (or its subject complement, with a linking verb like to be) or a preposition and its object, even if you think a pause is in order.
  • NO All duly registered members of this exclusive English equestrian club, are permitted unlimited access to the club’s stables and pubs. (splitting subject and verb)
  • NO The mugger was stunned to find that the elegant businessman had in his pockets, only three dollars and half a liverwurst sandwich. (splitting verb and object)
  • NO The only thing the lottery winners wanted was, to live their lives as they had before becoming millionaires. (splitting verb and subject complement)
  • NO We mailed illustrated concert programs to, every symphony subscriber and every music store and department in town. (splitting preposition and object)
Note that it is perfectly acceptable to interrupt these grammatical unions with a parenthetical element and a pair of commas (remember, a pair).
  • YES The mugger was stunned to find that the elegant businessman had in his pockets, besides a handkerchief, only three dollars and half a liverwurst sandwich.
Coordinating conjunctions
As we saw in "Commas Count," the coordinator is a comma that precedes a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) that joins two independent clauses. Be sure to put the comma before the conjunction, not after it.
  • NO The Green Party backbencher asked her question three times, but, the cabinet minister still refused to answer directly. (remove comma after conjunction)
When the elements joined by a coordinating conjunction are not independent clauses, there is usually no need for a comma (though see "Bending the rules" at the end of this article).
  • NO After Tiffany got Leonardo DiCaprio’s autograph, but before she could look at it, she fainted cold at the star’s feet. (conjunction with two dependent clauses)
  • NO Fluffy white cumulus clouds, and clear autumn air made it a perfect day to stay inside and watch TV. (conjunction with two phrases)
Restrictive elements
A restrictive element is the opposite of a parenthetical element. It is an element—usually descriptive—that is necessary to the sentence because it defines or limits (restricts) the word it describes. Do not use commas with restrictive elements.
  • NO The soup tureen, from the antique shop, was actually less expensive than the one I saw at the neighbourhood flea market. (element is restrictive, not parenthetical)
To test whether an element is restrictive, try omitting it from the sentence. If the sentence’s main message is no longer clear, the element is restrictive. If the main message is fine, the element is parenthetical.
  • NO Bob Dylan wrote the ballad, The Wedding Song, in 1974. (can’t omit the element; it is restrictive)
  • YES Bob Dylan’s first wife, Sara, left him soon after he wrote The Wedding Song for her. (can omit the element; it is parenthetical)
Series
Commas between items in a series stand for the word and. Don’t place a comma before the first item or after the last, since you can’t use and in either spot.
  • NO The developers received passionate pleas and lengthy petitions from, store owners, local residents, and area building managers. (remove first comma)
  • NO The children waved flags, beat on toy drums, and blew noisemakers, as the parade passed by. (remove last comma)
Remember that the comma before and in a series is optional.
And with a series of modifiers? Therein lies a bewildering comma conundrum: sometimes you need commas; sometimes you don’t. The decision depends on whether the modifiers are coordinate or cumulative.
Coordinate modifiers all independently modify the same word. You can rearrange their order and insert the word and between them. A series of coordinate modifiers requires commas.
  • YES She is a careful, conscientious, knowledgeable editor.
  • YES The caterers prepared an array of rich, colourful, tasty sweets for the buffet.
Cumulative modifiers do not separately and equally modify the word they appear with. Instead, they build or lean upon one another. You cannot change their order or insert and between them. A series of cumulative modifiers takes no commas.
  • YES She is a bilingual copy editor.
  • YES The caterers prepared a vegetarian bean soup for the buffet.
To complicate matters, a series may include both coordinate and cumulative modifiers. But if you apply the dual test of rearranging and inserting and, you should get the commas right.
  • YES She is a skilled bilingual copy editor. (one coordinate modifier)
  • YES She is an underpaid, skilled bilingual copy editor. (two coordinate modifiers)
Bending the rules
Punctuation is like any art: once you have mastered the principles, you can bend them. It’s fine to depart from the comma rules from time to time—if you have a good reason.
For clarity:
  • The question is, will he be able to compete in the Iron Man race and publish his book of haiku verse before he turns forty? (comma between verb and subject complement)
For emphasis:
  • He embraced her once again, and then walked out the door forever. (comma with coordinating conjunction joining two phrases)
For rhythm:
  • The parched hiker felt the hot sweet juicy trickle of the orange run down her throat. (commas omitted with coordinate adjectives)
George Bernard Shaw once said, "The golden rule is that there are no golden rules." That’s pretty much what I tell my workshop participants as I strip away their lifelong illusions about commas and breathing. Instead of one golden rule, we have many plastic ones—but that’s far more practical, especially if we plan to break one now and again. 

Bibliography
Strunk, William, Jr., and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1979. 

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