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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Commas Are Hard, Right? Another "Grammar Tuesday" Lesson from the Grammar Enthusiast

My son thinks commas are tough. And there are times when a writer wonders whether or not to include commas in sentences. One example of a comma argument is whether or not to place the Oxford Comma (the last comma in a list of things). Some insist on it, some say never use it, and most are somewhere in the middle. I am not concerned about discretionary commas. I am, however, concerned about the use of obvious commas.

Here are three of those obvious comma placements.

Dependent Clause Commas

Dependent clause commas set off extra information that is not vital to the grammar or meaning of a sentence. Once Upon A Time, On a Dark and Stormy Night, and For What it’s Worth are three phrases that should all be followed by a comma in the sentences they modify. The sentences in which they are found make complete sense and are grammatically correct without these modifiers, but we like them.

Conjunction Commas

The most common conjunctions are AND, BUT, and OR. These conjunctions attach two (or more) subjects, predicates, or complete sentences. Just like the way I listed them, BUT needs a conjunction comma almost always.

I like ice cream, but I really like ice cream sundaes.

I like watching hockey, but I don’t skate.

A vacation is awesome, but a resort vacation is more awesome.

AND and OR can often get away without commas, though commas are still used in lists.

I like apples and bananas. I like cake, cookies, and donuts. (The comma after cookies is the Oxford Comma.)

I’ll have apples or bananas with lunch today. I’ll usually eat apples, bananas, or grapes.

Appositive Commas

These clauses restate other information in the sentence, and are generally set apart from commas. The rule around appositive names has changed over time to drop the commas surrounding a name, but generally commas are used with appositives.

My brother, the older one, has a girlfriend now. (Unless people know some of the speaker’s siblings, knowing which one the speaker is referring to will be unimportant to them.) (The explanation statement used a dependent clause comma.)

My neighbor Daphne rides a scooter to school. (People used to set off Daphne with commas, but now it is not considered necessary.) (The explanation statement used a conjunction comma.)

My new house, the yellow one, will have wall-to-wall carpet. (Adding the information that the new house is also the yellow one adds information, but the likelihood is that the added information is not necessary.)

So there you have it! The three most common types of commas have been identified for your continued knowledge and enthusiasm. In fact, I would bet that the majority of other comma uses are actually comma splices or other incorrectly used commas.  However, that is a lesson for another Tuesday.

But* you don't have to take my word for it! Here are two additional resources to consult about comma usage:

Do you have a comma question, preference, comment, or pet peeve? Be sure to let me know!

*Most people were taught not to start a sentence with BUT. I think in informal writing, such as a blog post, starting a sentence with BUT is fine. However, it might appease others more if I'd written:
That's my lesson on commas, but you don't have to take my word for it!
However, you don't have to take my word for it!

Here are a few more of my grammar articles, in case you were wanting more!