79 – Punctuation shot: The main uses of the comma

Having witnessed much uncertainty, and even helplessness, around the uses of the comma, I have decided to devote this (overdue – apologies) post to this punctuation mark. Those who have read my books will recognise the list below, but I’m sure most of you won’t have come across it, so here it is.

The comma is used:

1  To separate pre-modifying adjectives having a similar relationship with the noun being pre-modified (such commas usually translate into ‘and’):

  • He now eats regular, healthy, substantial meals.
  • They were locked up in a small, cold, damp, dark cell.

2  To separate short items in lists, although usually not before the last one (longer items are best separated with semi-colons):

  • He bought bread, butter, cheese, eggs and coffee. (A comma before ‘and’ would be the so-called Oxford, or serial, comma. Unless it prevents genuine ambiguity, the Oxford comma is usually redundant.)
  • Their march through the jungle was slow, arduous and terrifying. (Ditto)

3  To mark off extra information in non-defining (non-restrictive) relative clauses:

  • Their house, which stands by the river, has been flooded. (Don’t forget to use both correlative commas – some writers do.)
  • She looked at the trembling boy, whose head was bowed.

4  To mark off extra information in other non-defining (non-restrictive) modifying clauses:

  • The year 1979, when he was born, was difficult for the whole family.
  • Poland, where they now live, has avoided sliding into a recession.
  • She gave the little girl, looking frightened, a reassuring hug.  

5  To mark off non-defining (non-restrictive) amplification:

  • Oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, contain important fatty acids.
  • Soap operas, such as Coronation Street, are quite popular in Britain.

6  To mark off extra information in non-defining (non-restrictive) modifying phrases (apposition):

  • Warsaw, my home town, was badly bombed during the war.
  • We’ve just seen David, our new neighbour.

7  To mark off other included units – both phrases and clauses:

  • The protest, I was convinced, had now become essential.
  • All students, during many hours of testing, considerably expanded their powers of recall.

8  To mark off conjuncts = connecting adverbials (adverbials linking sentences, e.g. to begin with, secondly, likewise, furthermore, moreover, besides, in other words, consequently, therefore, however, nevertheless, until then, in those days):

  • I don’t feel like going out. Besides, I have too much reading to catch up on.
  • Extra information is always marked off by commas. In other words, we put commas around those details which are not essential to understanding the sentence.

9  To mark off sentence adverbials (both phrases and clauses):

  • Frankly, I don’t give a damn.
  • Personally speaking, the Lake District is breathtakingly beautiful.

10  To separate coordinated clauses (remove those commas and you’ll see their importance immediately):

  • Teachers valued the guidance of individual officers, and inspectors found their performance satisfactory.  
  • He sold the premises, and the office had to relocate.

11 To mark off subordinate clauses (be that finite, as in [a] and [b]; non-finite, as in [c] and [d]; or verbless, as in [e]) preceding main clauses:

  • Although they tried hard, they didn’t win.
  • If you had asked me, I would have helped you.
  • Having failed her repeatedly, he was unable to regain her trust.
  • To be a good writer, you have to know how language works.
  • When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

12  To mark off phrases in the initial position (particularly where the absence of the comma would result in ambiguity, as in [a] and [b]):

  • In all, 5,000 schools were affected.
  • The day after, it was dumped.
  • In schools throughout the country, discontent was beginning to take hold.

13  To mark off some types of subordinate causes (disjuncts) following the main clause (although many subordinate clauses in non-initial positions are not preceded by a comma):

  • His work is highly acclaimed, for it has revolutionised our thinking about the issue.
  • Her poems are becoming popular, since they have struck a real chord with readers.
  • I managed to meet the deadline, although it certainly wasn’t easy.

14  With direct speech (although some writers use a colon to introduce direct speech):

  • Everybody shouted, “Get out now!”
  • “If you give up now,” she said to them, “you’ll regret it later.”

15 When addressing living creatures (see what happens when you remove each comma):

  • These are good, folk.
  • Don’t blame them, guys.
  • They are attacking, Ant.
  • Fetch, Rex!

16 With entreaties:

  • No dogs, please. (On this comma hangs the reputation of a man’s best friend.)
  • Desist, I beseech you.

17 With interjections:

  • Wow, that’s a lot of committees.
  • Well, how about it? 

Needless to say, the comma has also other uses. Important though it is, however, it often pops up in most unexpected places, in many of which it is decidedly unwelcome. But that’s the subject for another day.

PS

I’m sorry for not having been able to standardise line spacing in this post. While some people have problems with the comma, I struggle with formatting. Oh well, we all have our cross to bear!

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4 thoughts on “79 – Punctuation shot: The main uses of the comma

  1. Hi Anna. I wanted to check back in and read your post. I have decreased the amount of time I am on my blog these days. I get the impression the Oxford comma is controversial. I remember one blogger in particular was kind of nuts about it. I like your take on it but I have become self conscious about it, (probably thanks to that other blogger). I checked in our American early grammar lessons, recently, and they mention when listing several things to add the comma before the and. Gads. I am sure I make many mistakes with commas. One rule, I remember learning, is to insert a comma where it feels like a natural pause. Do you think this is a good way to look at it?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for another insightful comment, Deborah. But, first of all, about spending time on blog-related matters: I, too, devote less time to blogging and reading others’ blogs, but I actually think this is quite healthy. It suggests that we lead a full life, have lots of interests and simply prioritise effectively: enjoyable as social media are, they are not a replacement for face-to-face interactions. This is why, while I’m determined to remain faithful to the bloggers I already follow, I have decided not to add any more to my small collection – unless I come across somebody who writes about grammar and usage in a particularly engaging way. As for commas, your rule of thumb, which many people follow, is not entirely unreasonable, but it’s not the whole story because punctuation is largely governed by grammar. For example, we don’t separate the subject from its verb – simply because they “belong together”, this being a universal punctuation principle. But the point is that the subject (as well as the object and complement) can be a very long noun phrase. For example, in the sentence: “The lady who arrived at the crack of dawn and has since been patiently waiting at the front of what has now become quite a long queue is her friend”, the bit before “is” is the subject and must not be separated from its verb (“is”) by a comma because both parts belong together. Needless to say, a sentence can contain even longer noun phrases, and punctuation depends on what function those phrases perform – NOT on when we need to draw breath. But, in order to determine the function, one needs to be familiar with at least basic grammar, and this is where problems arise – at least in Britain. With grammar banished from the school curriculum for some 40 years (until relatively recently), the consequences are evident all round us. As for the Oxford comma, the final “and” in a list is supposed to REPLACE a comma, which is why this final comma is redundant. There is an important exception, though: when the Oxford comma would prevent ambiguity, but the need to prevent ambiguity in a list does not arise very often.

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