Kotsko’s Guide to Commas

Few indeed are the writers who fully understand the use of commas. Part of the problem is inherent: a wide range of comma usage is, in my opinion, discretionary. It’s not a matter of knowing the rules (hence the uselessness of relying on half-remembered “rules of thumb”), but of being conscious of the range of uses for this most subtle of punctuation marks and being able to explain the reasoning behind a particular usage.

In my opinion, there are a handful of situations where a comma is more or less obligatory. The first is in the construction of a series: “red white and blue” is clearly wrong. There is some dispute over whether it should be “red, white, and blue” (where the comma before the final conjunction is known as the “Oxford comma”) or “red, white and blue” (as it would appear in many journalistic style manuals). I prefer the Oxford comma because I believe that omitting it implies too strong a relationship between the final two items in the series; others believe that the final “and” is already doing the work of separating the items in the series and the comma is superfluous.

If the style manual for the publication you are writing for (or the person grading your paper) specifies one way or the other, you should of course obey. If you are writing for your own edification, you should meditate on this question, come to a firm position one way or the other, and stick with it. Consistency is the important thing in this case, because it just does not seem to me that there could be a plausible stylistic reason for alternating between the two (except perhaps if one were writing a narrative piece about people who disagreed on this usage and therefore decided to reflect each character’s preference in the dialogue).

The second nearly obligatory situation is in a compound sentence — i.e., a sentence in which two independent clauses are joined by a conjunction. In these cases, a comma should almost always precede the coordinating conjunction. For instance, the sentence “Jack went home and Jill stayed at the bar” is not using the normative punctuation, because both the units of the sentence have a subject and predicate of their own. The prefered punctuation in most cases is instead “Jack went home, and Jill stayed at the bar.” Even here, however, there is some stylistic wiggle room, because omitting the comma could imply a tighter correlation between the two clauses — but the comma should be the rule, whereas any exception should be conscious and reasoned. However, in a sentence with either a compound subject or compound verb, a comma would be incorrect: “Jack, and Jill went to the bar” and “Jack sat down, and ordered a drink” are both wrong and should be written without a comma. Unless you’re E.E. Cummings, I don’t think there is wiggle room here.

The really tricky part, however, is that if the compound sentence is a subordinate clause, the comma should not be used because it would give a misleading impression of the grammatical structure of the sentence. So one would write “Jack was cleaning his apartment, and Jill had to wash her hair,” but by contrast, one would write “John had to go out alone because Jack was cleaning his apartment and Jill had to wash her hair.” Introducing a comma into the subordinate clause would imply that “John had to go out alone” and “Jill had to wash her hair” were at the same grammatical “level” within the sentence, which is misleading.

Where it starts to become fuzzy is the use of commas to offset interjections and particles. It seems to me that “Clearly, he was drunk” and “Clearly he was drunk” are both correct and the usage depends on stylistic preference. Omitting the comma seems to me to be more emphatic (cf. “Of course, you have to use commas correctly” and “Of course you have to use commas correctly”), while using the comma implies a more leisurely pace and a looser connection between the particle and the sentence. The latter usage could be thought of as a kind of “soft” parentheses.

The same discretion applies to subordinate clauses introduced by conjunctive adverbs such as “because” or “although.” Neither “he pulled over because he had to pee” nor “he pulled over, because he had to pee” is incorrect in itself, though one might be preferable in a given context; the choice is a stylistic one. The one tip that I would give you in this connection is not to pile them on in such situations. For instance, if the second independent clause of a compound sentence is introduced by an interjection or particle, do not introduce a comma after the conjunction to set it off. Here’s an example:

  • Incorrect: Jack was unable to hang out that night, and, because Jill had to wash her hair, John had to go out by himself.
  • Correct: Jack was unable to hang out that night, and because Jill had to wash her hair, John had to go out by himself.

The second comma in the incorrect example adds no greater clarity — it is simply redundant. One should think of the coordinating conjunction as “swallowing” the comma that would come before the interjectory phrase. Using a redundant comma in this situation bespeaks an insecure approach to punctuation, where one is willing to sacrifice elegance out of fear of omitting a comma anywhere it might plausibly go. (The same applies when the interjectory phrase is preceded by a subordinating pronoun. As an exercise, find an example of this usage in the present blog post.)

Most quotations do not need to be introduced with a comma. In my opinion, introducing dialogue with a comma should be reserved solely for dialogue in narrative pieces of writing. In all other situations, the quotation should be integrated into your own syntax. Examples:

  • Incorrect: Christians believe that, “God created the heavens and the earth.”
  • Correct: Christians believe that “God created the heavens and the earth.”

As should be clear from this brief discussion, the proper use of commas depends on two crucial factors: understanding the grammatical structure of your sentence and being self-aware about your stylistic preferences (both globally and in particular situations). If you can talk about why you used a comma in a certain way — other than “but I thought that was the rule” — then you are well on your way to being a comma professional like me.

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27 Responses to “Kotsko’s Guide to Commas”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    Consistency is the important thing in this case, because it just does not seem to me that there could be a plausible stylistic reason for alternating between the two

    It doesn’t reflect alternation per se, but most of the journalistic style books I worked with when I was a copyeditor would have you omit the Oxford comma except in cases where the lack of that final comma would cause confusion in the reader (ie, the JFK and Stalin case). Most Oxford comma pedants take this as an acknowledgment that it is actually the one true comma rule.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The trick would be to devise a sentence where the Oxford comma would be misleading.

  3. christopher Says:

    Next week on Grammar with Kotsko: semi-colons.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Should I make this a weekly series?

  5. Greg Says:

    Semicolons are boring. Dashes, on the other hand, are not.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I forgot about subordinate clauses (or rather introduced a special case without discussing the general case). I also forgot about apposition. Any other comma uses I missed?

  7. Dan Watson (@watsdn) Says:

    I’m probably a serial comma pedant because I think it’s at worst neutral but usually adds clarity. Might as well have it in there every time. I’ve tried to take semicolons out of my writing entirely.

  8. Sam Says:

    Re your 8:52, one commonly-cited example of a case in which the serial comma would create ambiguity is the (imaginary?) dedication “To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.”

    … Although, of course, if you think about it, omitting the serial comma doesn’t prevent ambiguity — the writer might be implying that his/her mother is both Ayn Rand *and* God. (Which, IMO, shows the weakness of ambiguity-based arguments on matters of usage: if you start to focus on the amount of latent ambiguity in almost any sentence in any language, you will quickly go insane and/or lose the ability to communicate anything at all. )

  9. Christopher Rodkey Says:

    I used to be a grammar instructor at The Feltre School in Chicago (which is a great place), and I used to teach punctuation use around two principles: separation and isolation. One other use is what I called the “years and states rule”: “In July, 2010, I went to the beach.” “I was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on a Sunday afternoon.” In my freelance editing work, I would say 70% of all of my editorial contributions involve this use of the comma.

  10. bzfgt Says:

    “Consistency is the important thing in this case, because it just does not seem to me that there could be a plausible stylistic reason for alternating between the two (except perhaps if one were writing a narrative piece about people who disagreed on this usage and therefore decided to reflect each character’s preference in the dialogue).”

    I disagree with this, I sometimes use it and sometimes not due to the flow and sense of the thing, but I can’t think of any examples right now…

  11. Eric Nicholson Says:

    This whole discussion leaves me commatose.

  12. Dave Says:

    Is it “I do, too” or “I do too”?

  13. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    Any other comma uses I missed?

    Vocative? It’s always with a comma, isn’t it?

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Dave, I think the former is more appropriate if you are expressing agreement, and the latter is more appropriate if you are responding to someone who is accusing you of not doing something. Consider adding an exclamation point in the latter case.

  15. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Mikhail is right on the vocative, and Christopher does well to remind us of date and state-related usages.

    What folly, that I would be so bold as to write a guide to commas without first counting all the uses!

  16. Stephen Says:

    I was going to add subordinate clauses, yet naturally, you already caught that one. There’s also the separation of 2 or more adjectives modifying a single, solitary noun. There is, however, the interrupting element.

  17. Philip Says:

    “Incorrect: Jack was unable to hang out that night, and, because Jill had to wash her hair, John had to go out by himself.
    Correct: Jack was unable to hang out that night, and because Jill had to wash her hair, John had to go out by himself.”

    I think this is correct but with one major caveat: if *speaking* the above sentences I would take a short pause before and after the ‘and’ — so, if the comma is used to indicate the rhythm of how the sentence is spoken I think the first version is correct. As written the second comma is redundant but as a transcription of speech it may not be.

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t believe commas or other punctuation marks (in contemporary usage) are meant to indicate a pause in speech. They are meant to clarify the structure of a sentence and secondarily to clarify emphasis. So if the subordinate clause is meant to be parenthetical, use parentheses; if it’s meant to be emphatic, use dashes; in no case does the additional comma add greater clarity.

  19. ben Says:

    “The trick would be to devise a sentence where the Oxford comma would be misleading.”

    This is just as easily done as is devising a sentence where its absence is misleading; the trick is to find a case where the presence of a second comma indicates the role of the first comma. These are, in fact, exactly the kinds of case that fans of the Oxford comma (and I’m one!) are fond of producing.

    Its absence is misleading: “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”. (“Ayn Rand and God” does not, as the lack of a comma suggests, stand in apposition to “my parents”; the comma that is present is a comma of list-sequencing, not a vocative comma).
    Its presence is misleading: “I’d like to thank my parents, Herb, and Judy”. (The comma after “parents” is a vocative comma, not a list-sequencing comma; what follows does stand in apposition to “parents”, though the mistaken comma after “Herb” completely obscures that.)

    An interesting variation: “I’d like to thank my father, Herb, and Judy”: is Herb my father, or just someone else I’d like to thank? This seems straight-up ambiguous (“I’d like to thank my father Herb and Judy” is not an improvement), because the commas could be but need not be interpreted as delimiting the apposition. In speech, you’d be able to tell, because the two cases would be articulated differently; in writing, your best bets seem to be to go with one of “Judy and my father, Herb” or “Herb, Judy, and my father”, depending on who Herb is.

  20. Mikhail Emelianov Says:

    The lack of comma in vocative (and the use of an apostrophe to indicate plural, e.x. PDF’s or PhD’s) seems to be the latest trend in non-grammatical English…

  21. Philip Says:

    “I don’t believe commas or other punctuation marks (in contemporary usage) are meant to indicate a pause in speech.”

    Well, I use them that way! But maybe that’s because I tend to read back what I’ve written in my head a lot and so I tend to perceive my own writing as if it were spoken.

    “The lack of comma in vocative (and the use of an apostrophe to indicate plural, e.x. PDF’s or PhD’s) seems to be the latest trend in non-grammatical English…”

    In Britain we call this the Grocer’s Apostrophe and isn’t especially new.

  22. Katie at Tweed Editing Says:

    Your bulleted example about Jill washing her hair seems akin to the illustration that Carol Saller used in a Lingua Franca column for the Chronicle last year: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/02/21/shall-i-drive-this-writer-crazy-a-copy-editor-decides/

    Commenters were very opinionated on the matter! But Saller’s inclination was the same as yours, and she provided references to some style authorities. (She had to extrapolate from a guideline about double conjunctions.)

    Her point was really about editorial judgment, since there isn’t a hard-and-fast rule that applies.

  23. ben Says:

    Actually Saller’s contrast is different. Schematically, Adam’s contrast is between

    1. clause, and, another clause
    2. clause, and another clause

    Whereas Saller’s is between (2) and

    3. clause and, another clause

    Adam’s contrast is better because, IMO, (3) is so obviously wrong as not to warrant consideration.

  24. Katie at Tweed Editing Says:

    Oh, I read this issue differently. I’m seeing Adam’s example as [clause], [coordinating conjunction], [nonessential element/phrase], [another clause]. My sense is that it’s that nonessential element, or what Adam’s calling an interjection, that causes the comma confusion. And it’s especially tricky because that element could take any number of guises—prepositional phrase, participial phrase, a phrase beginning with another conjunction, etc.

    Saller’s first sentence (in her two-sentence example) is [clause] [coordinating conjunction] [nonessential element/phrase] [another clause].

    I’m identifying them as the same grammatical elements; it’s just a matter of where the commas go. And Saller mentions a “third party” that would suggest a comma before and one after the coordinating conjunction, just as Adam’s first (“incorrect”) example does. So Saller really presents three options. I’m replicating your numbering here but presenting them in Saller’s order:

    3. Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette and, keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38.
    2. Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette, and keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38.
    1. Sal Friday took a drag on her cigarette, and, keeping an eye on the alley, she felt again for her .38.

    Anyway, I think we’re agreeing that Adam’s solution is the most elegant. It’s even Chicago’s recommendation (6.32, re: double conjunctions—the “because” in his example is also a conjunction). And cheers to him for broaching this thorny topic.

    (Ben, your earlier comment about the serial comma reminds me of Ben Zimmer’s remarks during the 2011 roundtable celebrating The Chicago Manual of Style’s “century of style”—I’m not talking to the same Ben, am I?)

  25. ben Says:

    You’re not, but I’m flattered that you seem to think the question is in order.

  26. Katie at Tweed Editing Says:

    You never know! The example he used was an acknowledgment “to my father, the pope, and Mother Teresa.” Is that a series listing three people, or is the pope the father? I favor the serial comma, and I had never thought about the middle element looking like an appositive before. You came to that realization independently.

  27. The pedagogical problem of “usage” | An und für sich Says:

    [...] are very small), but if they have more comprehensive difficulties, what does one do? I’ve written before that one can’t have real conscious control over comma usage without understanding the [...]


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