Although there is considerable flexibility in the use of the comma, there are some contexts where this punctuation mark is obligatory; I wrote about this in my previous post. But the comma often puts in an appearance where it’s decidedly unwelcome, some of its common misuses being illustrated below. First, though, a quick summary. Many people assume that the comma corresponds to pauses in speech, but this happens only occasionally. In essence, punctuation is governed largely by grammar. As far as clauses are concerned, those clause elements which ‘belong together’ don’t get separated from each other with the comma, while those elements which are more peripheral to the rest of the sentence do get marked off by the comma – or commas. By the way, clause elements are: subject, verb, object, complement and adverbial.
For example, we don’t separate the subject from its verb – simply because they are buddies: they ‘go together’. But what seems to confuse people is that the subject (as well as the object, complement and adverbial) can be a very long noun phrase. In the sentence: “The lady who arrived early this morning and has since been patiently waiting at the front of what has now become quite a lengthy queue must be retired”, the bit before the verb ‘must be’ is the subject and should not be separated from the verb by the comma because both parts belong together. Needless to say, a sentence can contain even longer noun phrases, and punctuation depends primarily on what function those phrases perform in the sentence – NOT on where we need to draw breath. But, in order to determine the function, one needs to be familiar with at least basic grammatical principles, and this is where problems arise.
In the brief overview below of some common misuses of the comma, the asterisk signals faulty usage.
Before pre-modifying adjective(s) having a closer relationship with the noun being modified than the preceding one(s):
*All students are entitled to broad, general education. (‘General’ is more integral to ‘education’ than ‘broad’, which is why this comma, which would translate into ‘and’, is inadmissible.)
*Virgin Trains offer fast, wireless internet access. (‘Wireless’ is more integral to ‘internet’ than ‘fast’, which is why this comma is inadmissible.)
Between central clause elements (subject, verb, object and complement) – both phrases and clauses:
*Additional copies of this specification, can be purchased from SQA. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)
*Information about developing skills, is given in all our documents. (Inadmissible comma between the subject and its verb)
*Teachers should remember, that teaching grammar is terribly important. (Inadmissible comma between verb and object)
*It is difficult to obtain from food alone, enough Vitamin E. (Inadmissible comma between verb – followed by an adjunct – and object)
*This slide gives writers, a brief overview of where not to use commas. (Inadmissible comma between two objects)
*Beautiful landscape is, only a part of Cumbria’s appeal. (Inadmissible comma between verb and complement)
With many types of subordinate causes (adjuncts) following the main clause:
*They can go out and play, after they have finished their homework.
*She would help him out, if she could.
*You must tell me, where you two met.
*You should abide by school rules, while you are at school.
*Students will improve their writing, through learning grammar.
*Teachers will have many opportunities, to observe students.
Before adverbial phrases in the final position:
*You should indicate where essential skills are present, across the whole qualification.
*I will call you, from my mobile.
With defining (restrictive) relative clauses:
*The girl, who used to work with me, has moved to Rome.
*Snakes, which are poisonous, are best avoided.
With defining (restrictive) post-modification:
*The lady, standing in the doorway, is our neighbour.
*The procedure, to be followed, is outlined in this manual.
With defining (restrictive) apposition (both phrases and clauses):
*Our friend, Ted, is always ready to help. (Inadmissible commas – provided Ted isn’t our only friend)
*The fact, that this school selects by ability, is widely known.
With defining (restrictive) amplification:
*Languages, such as Polish, are considered difficult by the British.
*The literacy strategy wants methods, such as looking at books, to be used when appropriate.
Needless to say, there are many more ways in which writers misuse commas, but, if I were to list, and exemplify, them all, I would end up with a sizeable tome!