All about Commas, Conclusion: Commas Are Essential to Writing

In closing this exploration of the comma, here is a fun example that drives home the importance of mastering this frequent yet often misunderstood writing tool. The example is slightly modified from an example that Lynne Truss shares in her punctuation handbook, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

Consider the following sentence:

A woman without her man is nothing.

Not a good statement to make, is it? (When I present this sentence to a group of students, I become the target of many an angry glare from female students.)

Let’s improve this sentence by adding some commas:

A woman, without her, man is nothing.

Two commas—and nothing more—have drastically altered the meaning of this sentence. In fact, this second sentence expresses the very opposite message from that of the first.

Commas matter. Far too often, people think of commas as cute separating squiggles—useful to be sure, but hardly necessary. Transformed completely by the presence of two commas, the sentence above showcases the comma’s importance.

Granted, commas may not always make as drastic a change as the one seen in the example above, but they often do make for some kind of difference in meaning. And even if they do not change a sentence’s meaning, commas do tell our audience how to read our prose. Commas tell readers where to pause and where to lower intonation. Commas, without taking up any more than a single space of text, identify clauses, phrases, and words that act as modifying asides within larger sentences. Commas play much the same role that rests play in music and that negative space plays in visual art. To understand and apply the comma is to manipulate absence as well as presence in the art of writing; it gives you control not only over what is said, but also over what is not said.

With these points in mind, mastering this writing essential is worth your best effort.

Next up: Advanced Punctuation

As we have seen, the comma is an essential tool for expressing intonation and rhythm in writing. However, it isn’t our only punctuation tool. For example,  what if we want to show a long, drawn out hesitation? Or what if we want a pause between two complete sentences, but we do not want that pause to be a period? In these cases, we need to use punctuation techniques other than the comma.

The next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Punctuation Toolbox,” discusses such techniques. Stay tuned!

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Stylistic Commas: To Comma or Not to Comma?

Too often, people think of commas purely in terms of right and wrong, correct and incorrect, grammatical and ungrammatical. Sometimes, though, comma placement is a matter of choice. In such cases, the decision to use a comma depends on the writer’s intention. Maybe she wants to emphasize a word by creating pauses, both before and after the word. Maybe she wants to show that some phrase or word is nonessential to the main point of the sentence. Such comma placements may not be grammatically necessary, but they serve the purpose of style.

For example, consider the following sentence. Here are two ways I can write it. Note that both ways are grammatically correct but stylistically distinct:

Comma placement sometimes comes down to a matter of choice.

Comma placement, sometimes, comes down to a matter of choice.

In the first sentence, I do not place any extra emphasis on the adverb sometimes. However, the second sentence emphasizes the word—showcases it—so that the reader is left with the impression that the adverb sometimes is of central importance to the sentence’s message. It stresses the point that comma placement is a matter of choice, but only in some cases. Logically enough, I call such commas “stylistic commas.” You might also call them “optional commas” or even “optional stylistic commas.” Think of it in whatever terms work best for you.

How do we know where to use stylistic commas? My method is to think about where I want emphatic pauses, and then to apply the comma rule of thumb. Do you remember that rule from our previous comma discussions? Just to be sure, here is the full version of the comma rule of thumb with exceptions included:

Comma Rule of Thumb: Wherever you intend a slight pause, usually for emphasis, use a comma. The only exception is if you are connecting two sentences, in which case you need a semicolon to show the pause.

With the comma rule of thumb in mind, think about the following sentences. Consider where I want readers to pause and how I show those pauses with commas. Also, consider why I want readers to pause in those places.

The community college, in my view, is a valuable resource for non-traditional adult learners.

Commas are simple, once we embrace their complexity.

I enjoy writing, and teaching others how to write.

Notice how, in that third sentence, I placed a comma before the coordinating conjunction and, although I did not use and to combine two independent clauses. You may recall my previous article, where I stated that the purpose of the comma preceding and is to show that and combines two complete sentences. Although the statement “I enjoy writing” is a complete sentence, the phrase “teaching others how to write” is hardly a complete sentence. Is this comma placement an error, then? Did I misuse the comma?

No. Though it appears to disobey established rules, I used that comma correctly. I placed that comma to create a stylistic pause before and—not to support it as a coordinating conjunction. This comma does not exist for any grammatical purpose. It serves the effect of creating a stylistic pause between two different actions: (1) writing and (2) teaching writing to others. I want my reader to see that I recognize writing and teaching writing to others as two distinctly different practices. That comma (and the pause it represents) emphasizes that distinction. The content of my writing (the idea that there is a separation between writing and teaching writing) is reflected by a separation in the writing that expresses that notion. When placing stylistic commas, intention and purpose matter.

Still, situations like this cause a great deal of comma confusion. Armed with the (normally useful) rule that “commas precede coordinating conjunctions to show that they combine two complete sentences,” novice writers encounter a sentence like the third example above, and they are suddenly lost. I can hear them now: “I thought the comma rules said I should place commas before coordinating conjunctions only to show that two sentences are being combined. This is not a case where two sentences are being combined, yet there it is: a comma before and. What gives?”

What must give is the notion that commas are always dictated by set-in-stone, all-encompassing rules. One additional rule accompanies every comma rule I have given you up to this point: use commas wherever you think emphatic pauses should occur to highlight some word, phrase, or clause. Reading your sentence aloud—the way you want it to sound—and then placing commas where you hear pauses is a good start. The comma rule of thumb will not lead you astray.

Conclusion: To Comma or Not to Comma?

If you feel that your writing too often reads like an uninterrupted clinical stream of data, consider some consciously placed stylistic commas. On the other hand, if you feel that commas are a bit excessive in your writing or that you are writing in a monotone, play with dashes, parentheses, and colons. Each has its own unique place in the writer’s toolbox. (Did you miss my articles on dashes and parentheses? Click here to learn more.)

Stay tuned for the conclusion to “All about Commas,” where I will share an interesting example of how commas can change the meanings of sentences. With that conclusion, we will move on to discuss advanced punctuation techniques like the colon (:), the semicolon (;), the ellipsis (. . .), and a few others.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Comma Odds & Ends: Commas Support Conjunctions That Combine Two Sentences

Here’s a simple comma function: a comma should come before a coordinating conjunction whenever the coordinating conjunction combines two complete sentences.

At this point, you might be saying, “Whoa there, partner! What are coordinating conjunctions again?”

Coordinating conjunctions, as their name implies, coordinate two sentences or items (coordinating), even as they conjoin them (conjunction). They are often called conjunctions, for short. There are only seven coordinating conjunctions. The mnemonic FANBOYS will help you remember them:

For

And

Nor

But

Or

Yet

So

Conjunctions can combine all kinds of things. They can combine words, phrases, or even full sentences. However, when we use a coordinating conjunction to combine two full sentences, we should put a comma before that conjunction to show that it is combining two large and complete parts. The comma also creates a pause and a drop in pitch just before the conjunction to emphasize the point that the conjunction is leading into another complete sentence. (Remember those two comma functions? If not, check ’em out! Here are links: commas create pauses and commas create drops in pitch.)

Here is an example of how a comma precedes a coordinating conjunction:

Last year, Bob taught three literature courses, and he served on the department’s hiring committee.

Notice that I am using and to combine two complete, stand-alone sentences:

1. Bob taught three literature courses

2. He served on the department’s hiring committee.

The comma before and acts as a separating agent, since it adds additional force to the conjunction. It says to the reader, “I am combining two big things here—sentences that could stand alone. Beware, reader: this single sentence involves not one, but two complete (but related) messages.” Considering the point that commas represent pauses in our writing, that comma also says, “Pause before this and to recognize that you are about to read another complete, stand-alone idea.”  All of that—from a comma!

Here is a sentence that expresses the same essential idea as the sentence above. Notice, though, that it does not combine two full sentences; instead, it uses a compound verb:

Bob taught three literature courses and served on the department’s hiring committee.

There is no comma before and—and there doesn’t need to be. That is because and is not combining two complete sentences. It combines two verb phrases. Look:

Bob . . .

1. taught three literature courses (verb phrase—not a sentence)

and

2. served on the department’s hiring committee (verb phrase—not a sentence)

The presence of a comma (or lack thereof) in the sentences above acts as a visual cue so that readers know what is to come in the sentence. This is yet another function that commas serve in our writing.

Next Up: Can Comma Placement Be a Matter of Choice?

These comma articles have explored many applications of the comma, and many of these applications—like the pre-conjunction comma discussed in this article—are indeed matters of right or wrong, correct or incorrect, appropriate or inappropriate.

But are there cases in which comma placement is a matter of choice? For example, can we place a comma before a coordinating conjunction even if the “rule” discussed in this article says otherwise? Can we place some commas simply because we want to?

Sure we can! Read the next article to learn more. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Christopher AltmanAmericans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Comma Odds & Ends: Should I Place Commas Between Adjectives?

Here’s a good question about commas:

“When I have multiple adjectives before a noun, should I place commas between those adjectives?”

I could have my own fleet of yachts if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this question (well, maybe not yachts—but definitely a few bass boats).

The answer: it depends! (Don’t you just love hearing that answer?)

What, though, does this decision depend on? To answer this question, here’s a quick rule of thumb for commas and adjectives:

Comma-between-Adjectives Rule of Thumb: If two adjectives precede the noun they modify, place commas between them if you would replace the comma with the word and. If and would not work there, since the adjectives seem inseparable, do not place a comma.

Confusing? An example will serve best:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Notice that there is a comma between painful and frigid, but not between frigid and winter. Why?

Remember the rule of thumb: if and can replace the comma, then the comma is correct. Let’s apply the rule to the sentence above:

The painful and frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (correct)

That works, doesn’t it? Now, just to be sure, let’s try adding and where we did not use a comma:

The painful and frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

It does not work even if we omit the adjective painful:

The frigid and winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (incorrect)

Ugh. That didn’t work. We’d best leave that second comma out.

Even though I have shared a working rule of thumb for commas separating adjectives, my inquisitive (and demanding) readers may still want an explanation of why commas sometimes fall between adjectives and why in other cases they do not. The answer is simple, but I think many teachers do not explain it well, since they too often use English grammar jargon in their explanations. Such so-called explanations only serve to accomplish the one thing that explanations should not do—fail to explain.

With that in mind, here is a working explanation for inquisitive minds. Let’s return to our example sentence:

The painful, frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones.

Now, think about the adjectives painful and frigid. They each apply separately to the noun. I could remove one of these adjectives, and the sentence would still make sense:

The painful winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (frigid omitted)

The frigid winter air bit into Bob’s bones. (painful omitted)

Those still make perfect sense; however, if I remove winter, the sentence would not make nearly as much sense:

The painful, frigid air bit into Bob’s bones. (winter omitted)

So, the notion of winter is an integral part of the noun air. Sure, painful and frigid allow the reader to reason that the air must be winter air, but I prefer the sentence that makes this point explicit.

How then is winter different from painful and frigid in the sentence above? Remember that winter is inseparable from the noun air, such that it actually becomes part of the noun. (In some cases, such adjectives become one with their nouns completely, as seen in the nouns bighead and freeway.)

Because winter becomes part of a larger noun, the noun is effectively made up of both an adjective (winter) and a noun (air). In other words, we are not talking about a thing known simply as air. We are talking about a thing called winter air. And that noun, winter air, is modified by two separate adjectives: painful and frigid. We can see it better if we restructure the sentence this way:

The winter air that bit into Bob’s bones was both painful and frigid.

Notice that in both versions of the sentence the adjectives painful and frigid modify, not merely the word air, but the adjective-noun combination winter air. If we placed a comma between winter and air, the adjective winter would be grouped with the adjectives that define it, and not with the noun.

Here is a third example. Think about the difference between those adjectives that are divided by commas and the one that is not:

Josie lives in a stylish, spacious loft apartment.

Think about it with the sentence reorganized:

Josie lives in a loft apartment that is stylish and spacious. (correct)

But not:

Josie lives in an apartment that is stylish, spacious, and loft. (incorrect)

The following diagram shows how these adjectives function in the two sentences above. Arrows represent how one word modifies another word–to show us which word(s) receive(s) description. Notice how the comma placement changes the function of the third adjective:

Comma-Adjective-Correct-and-Incorrect1-300x187See how that works? In the top diagram, the adjectives stylish and spacious modify loft apartment. In the bottom diagram, the adjectives (and so-called adjectives) stylish, spacious, and loft modify the apartment. Of course, loft is not an adjective, at least in the sense that it appears in that second diagram. That’s why it should not be treated like the other two adjectives. It functions as part of the noun, and by virtue of belonging to the noun, it receives the description of the other two adjectives.

Here is one more example:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing ice cubes.

This sentence says:

The ice cubes were numbing and refreshing.

It does not say:

The cubes were numbing, refreshing, and ice.

Also, if ice should be one of the comma-separated adjectives, we can remove it and the sentence will still make sense. Let’s try it:

Jack chewed on some numbing, refreshing cubes.

If we remove all three comma-separated adjectives, we are left with this:

Jack chewed on some cubes.

Personally, I enjoy chewing on ice cubes, but not on cubes in general. Rubik’s Cubes are fun to solve (or to try to solve), but I prefer not to chew on them. (However, many dogs and toddlers would passionately disagree with me on this matter.) So, unless we want our readers to think Jack is a canine (or that he is incredibly eccentric), we should specify that these things he is chewing on are not merely cubes, but that they are ice cubes. In this sentence, the idea of a cube should not be separated from the adjective ice. By placing a comma between ice and the other two adjectives, the writer would erroneously group ice with that series of comma-combined adjectives, and not with the noun, cube. That would be a bad move, unless the writer was discussing a dog named Jack chewing on cubes that are defined by the adjective ice.

(But really–who names their dog Jack? Whatever happened to Spot or Fido? And what on earth does it mean for the cubes to be ice? Maybe it will catch on as a new slang word: “Yeah, I’m tellin’ ya: these cubes are ice, man. You gotta try some 0′ these if you wanna be ice.”)

To recap, here are our rules for commas and adjectives:

1. If and can go between two adjectives without disrupting the meaning of a sentence, you can place a comma there (in place of and).

2. If the adjective is an integral part of the noun, and if removing it would cause the noun not to make sense alone, then you should not separate it from another adjective with a comma. It should be considered part of the noun, which means that the adjective—along with the noun—is modified by the other adjectives.

3. If the adjective describes the noun but is not integral to the noun’s meaning, you should separate that adjective from the other non-integral adjectives with a comma.

Coming up: Commas and Conjunctions

Commas serve many purposes in sentences. One of the most frequent (and useful) comma functions is that commas work along with coordinating conjunctions to combine two sentences into one. To learn more about this useful comma function, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Odds & Ends: Using Commas with Other Forms of Punctuation

Commas and Quotation Marks

In American English, if you are using a quote that is directly followed by a comma, place the comma inside the quotation marks. Do this even if the comma is not part of the quote.

(Note: This is true as well for periods; however, it is not true for question marks, exclamation points, colons, and semicolons. As a rule, place these punctuation techniques outside of the quotation marks, unless they are part of the original quoted language.)

Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.

I know, I know: this doesn’t make sense. Why put something inside a quote if it is not part of the quote? And heck, doesn’t this defeat the entire purpose of quotation marks, since they are supposed to differentiate between what is part of the quote and what is not? (Sigh.)

Well, the British agree with me, so they place the comma outside the quotation marks, which shows that it is not part of the quote:

Example: Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story”, a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind. (British English)

However, British writers do place the comma within the quotation marks if the comma is part of the original quoted language. This deviation allows them to differentiate and to express more precise word-for-word (or, in this case, comma-for-comma) quotations than those seen in the American style.

Still, even if our friends across the pond have a more logical approach than ours, those of us writing in the States should stick with the conventions of American English. (However, if you’re writing for a British audience, make sure to use British comma placement.)

Commas and Parentheses

If you use a parenthetical phrase mid-sentence where a comma occurs (which happens frequently in my writing, as you may have noticed), always place the comma after the parenthetical phrase:

Example (correct): Since commas are important to writing (as pauses are important to speech), you should never neglect to use them in your prose.

Example (incorrect): Since commas are important to writing, (as pauses are important to speech) you should never neglect to use them in your prose.

There is sound logic behind this comma placement. In the sentence above, the parenthetical phrase, “as pauses are important to speech,” is in response to the clause, “since commas are important to writing.” To show that the parenthetical phrase is to be grouped with that preceding clause, the comma encloses the parenthetical material within the clause. In this sense, the comma enables the clause to swallow up the parenthetical phrase. In effect, the parenthetical material becomes directly linked with the clause it modifies and not with the clause that follows.

Commas and Periods

In rare cases, writers are faced with situations in which they must place a comma after a period. To the novice eye, placing a comma directly after a period looks odd, so new writers often hesitate at the thought of this particular comma placement.

How is this handled? Simple: Just set aside your fears and boldly place the comma after the period. Look at the example below.

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr., which is why I keep a copy of his collected writings near my desk.

Related Point: This practice of following an abbreviating period with a comma applies to commas, but it does not apply to periods at the ends of sentences. If you have a situation that seems to call for two adjacent periods, do not use two periods. Simply write one period, and it will do double-duty by serving both functions. Consider the example below, in which I have simplified the sentence above so that Jr. comes at the end of the sentence. Notice that the single period of that sentence serves two functions: (1) it acts as the period for abbreviating the title Junior, and (2) it acts as the period to end the sentence.

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King Jr.

Now let’s throw a parenthetical phrase into the mix, just to see how it is handled with the ending period:

To show real-life examples of effective writing, I often cite the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. (one reason I keep a copy of his collected essays near my desk).

In this latest case, I use two separate periods, since the two periods are not adjacent, but separated by the parenthetical phrase. See how that works? (Note: This applies as well to the use of the abbreviation for etcetera: etc.)

A Quick Comma Detail: Did you notice that I placed a comma before the title, “Jr.” in the final example, but not in the two examples that precede it? Which is the correct way–Martin Luther King, Jr. (comma), or Martin Luther King Jr. (no comma)? The answer: it’s your choice. The comma that precedes titles like Jr. and Sr. is optional. I prefer to use it, so long as it does not disrupt the sentence. I omitted it from the first two sentences, since I did not want it to distract my reader from the comma placement I was discussing in those example sentences. Otherwise, my default is to include the comma, since it shows a slight change in pitch that occurs when expressing such titles.

Next Up: Should We Place Commas between Two Adjectives?

The next article will cover the use (or lack) of commas between adjectives. After that, we will discuss the stylistic use of commas, and then we will conclude this series on commas and move on to other punctuation techniques.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).



Comma Odds & Ends: The (Optional?) Oxford Comma

What is the Oxford Comma?

One frequent application of the comma is placing it between items in a series (a list of items). For example, consider the sentence below. Notice that the last comma of the series (the one just before and) is optional:

Future articles will cover colons, semicolons, and dashes. (final comma included)

I could just as easily write:

Future articles will cover colons, semicolons and dashes. (final comma omitted)

Both of the sentences above are perfectly clear and acceptable. That extra comma, optional in the case above, is called the “Oxford comma.” (Some refer to it as “the serial comma.”) Examples like the one above have sparked some controversy, even among the Punctuation Gods, over whether the inclusion of the Oxford comma should be standard. The standard approach in American English is to include the comma unless it distorts the sentence’s meaning. Still, despite this new standard in American English, many writers disagree with placing that additional comma, so they continue to resist the new trend. And for some writers such  as journalists, this choice to omit the Oxford comma is not merely a punctuational pet peeve, since these writers must work with spatial limitations. (I wonder, though, if this practice will change with the proliferation of online newspapers, since the omitted comma was a consideration of the printed word–of conserving physical space as well as materials like ink and paper. Perhaps now more journalists will come over to the Dark Side and begin including those Oxford commas. Who knows?)

While the Oxford comma is often optional, there are cases in which its presence is necessary to the sentence’s message. Consider the two sentences below:

1. I enjoy experiencing movies and writing.

2. I enjoy experiencing, movies, and writing.

What am I saying here? It depends on which sentence you read. In the first sentence, I am saying:

I enjoy experiencing movies and experiencing writing.

In the second sentence, I make an altogether different statement:

I enjoy the act of experiencing, the act of seeing movies, and the act of writing.

But what happens if, when trying to express the point that I enjoy these three activities, I place the first comma but omit the Oxford comma before and? Let’s try it:

I enjoy experiencing, movies and writing.

This nonsensical sentence doesn’t really express anything. Speak it aloud, pausing at the comma. Here is how it sounds:

I enjoy experiencing [pause] movies and writing.

So, if I want to express the notion that I enjoy those three things—namely, (1) experiencing, (2) movies, and (3) writing—I must include that Oxford comma. In this case, it is not merely optional. If I never include the final comma in this series and if I follow that rule in the sentence above, there is no way to know what this sentence states.

The Argument against the Oxford Comma

I should mention that there are cases in which the Oxford comma is not optional, in the opposite sense: sometimes, writers must omit it to express the message they intend. Consider the sentence below:

I offer this series of articles for my readers, my students, and anyone interested in language.

In the sentence above, the second comma could throw a syntactical monkey-wrench into my message if I am trying to express the notion that the group of people known as “my readers” consists of my students and anyone interested in language. If I want to express that notion, I should omit the Oxford comma:

I offer this series of articles for my readers, my students and anyone interested in language.

Citing examples like the sentence above, opponents of the Oxford comma argue that the default (omitting the comma) errs to the side of caution in avoiding the ambiguities that the additional comma sometimes creates. This too is a valid approach.

Note: Observant readers will notice that the pro-comma people could argue the opposite position: if the writer was trying to express the idea that the articles are for (1) readers, (2) students, and (3) anyone interested in language, the practice of omitting the comma hinders the clarity of this sentence. If both approaches leave room for ambiguity, which approach should we follow? (The answer: it depends.)

My Position: Conscious, Case-by-Case Writing

In my experience, omitting the Oxford comma causes more trouble than it avoids, since most cases of ambiguity are caused not by the presence of the additional comma, but by its absence. Still, this rule is not an absolute. When all is said and done, finding your position on the Oxford comma is a matter of conscious writing. If you decide to include the Oxford comma as a default practice, just be aware that there are cases where that final comma disrupts the notion you are trying to express and that you should make exceptions in those cases. Likewise, if omitting the Oxford comma is your default, just remember that sometimes you will need its presence to express the notion you are trying to write. No matter your side on the Oxford comma debate, always be prepared to allow for the exception.

Also, regardless of your Oxford-comma default, don’t get too caught up in the dogma of your position, as this may limit your perspective and blind you to other possibilities. Consider again the last sentence we explored. While some might argue over whether to include the Oxford comma, I might step out of that debate entirely by rewriting the sentence using a colon:

I offer this series of articles for my readers: my students and anyone interested in language.

Or, since writing is meant to be read, I might try avoiding the tautology of saying I offer my articles for readers (duh!) by writing the sentence this way:

I offer this series of articles for my students and for anyone interested in language.

Here’s another approach: if I want a pause for emphasis, I will try a stylistic comma (not the same as the Oxford comma):

I offer this series of articles for my students, and for anyone interested in language.

If I want that pause to lend more spontaneity to the sentence, I might try a dash instead:

I offer this series of articles for my students—and for anyone interested in language. (I prefer this version–but that’s because I love dashes.)

If a subtle, whispering tone is my aim, I might try a parenthetical phrase:

I offer this series of articles for my students (and for anyone interested in language).

Or, I might aim for something completely different:

This series of articles is not just for students; it’s for anyone interested in language.

All of those sentences are improvements over the original. There is no question as to the message they convey. These improvements demonstrate why developing a toolbox of punctuation techniques is important. While the comma is an excellent clarifying tool, it is not the only tool at our disposal.

This relates to a truth I have found about writing: there is no rule of writing that takes the place of consciously considering the message you are trying to express in a given sentence. The best writers consider each idea and sentence they write on an individual, case-by-case basis, and then they write accordingly. Although they recognize rules as helpful guidelines, such writers never lean lazily against any writing practice. With that thought in mind, feel free to practice a default, but do not sacrifice versatility and consciousness for convention and dogma. Writing practices serve your purposes; you do not serve theirs.

Next Up: Placing Commas beside Other Forms of Punctuation

The next article covers ways that the comma interacts with other forms of punctuation like quotation marks or parentheses. For example, if a parenthetical phrase occurs at the end of a clause that is set off by a comma, should the comma go before or after the parenthetical phrase? And what about quotation marks and commas: if a comma occurs at the end of a quote, does it go inside or outside the quotation marks? Why do some writers place the comma inside the quotes, while others place it outside?

I will answer these questions in the upcoming article, “Comma Odds & Ends: Using Commas with Other Forms of Punctuation.” Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Punctuation and the Tone-Scape of Writing

In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.

I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it with you, my dear readers.

For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.

The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.

The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.

Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:

In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:

Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.

The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.

Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).

Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.

As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.

The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. The parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).

The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing gives that writing three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.

Next Up: Back to Commas!—But First: Two More Ways to Create Tone

Before continuing our (phenomenally enlightening) discussion of commas, I want to share a few other ways to create this three-dimensional tone in writing. One way is using italics to place extra tone on a word or phrase. We often do this in speaking, when we say things like, “Yeah, Bob, I could help you mow the lawn tomorrow.” (Compare that to the statement, “I could help you mow the lawn tomorrow.” Two very different statements, aren’t they?)

Another way to create tone is with the ellipsis, which shows a hesitation (especially one of uncertainty) within a sentence. At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Wait, but . . . what exactly is an ellipsis?” The ellipsis—often called “three dots” or (worse yet) “dot dot dot”—shows a long, drawn out hesitation, just as it did in that previous sentence. A writer can also use the ellipsis at the end of a sentence to show a sense of waiting or trailing off. Can you think of some examples of such sentence endings? . . . (Well, obviously you can now!)

I will discuss these techniques in more detail in future installments of The Writer’s Toolbox, but before we explore advanced punctuation further, there are still some more points to consider about the comma.

The next article answers a question often asked by students and by other curious individuals: “If I am listing three or more items in a list, do I need to put a comma before and?”

In other words, consider the sentences below. Which one is right? . . .

I enjoy writing, chess, and grilling. (comma before and)

or

I enjoy writing, chess and grilling. (no comma before and)

Want to find out? Click the link below. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


When Commas Collide: Confusion over Closely Placed Commas

Once again, here are the four essential comma functions:

1. Commas show slight pauses.

2. Commas set off modifying clauses and phrases from the main message of a sentence.

3. Commas show a slight drop in pitch.

4. Commas separate items in lists.

Sometimes these comma functions run together. The untrained eye sees commas as just that: a bunch of commas. The reader—at least at first glance—does not see how two commas in a sentence are setting off an interrupting phrase, while another nearby set of commas is separating items in a list. He sees only one running group of commas, but that grouping makes no sense.

I contend that these situations are to blame for the generally held myth that commas are confusing and too variable to understand. In reality, commas are simple–that is, once we understand the essential roles they play in sentences. Still, even if commas are simple to the well trained writer, they may not be so simple to our readers.  With that point in mind, keeping commas from running together is the writer’s responsibility.

What do I mean by the notion of commas running together? An example will serve best:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising.

Now, notice that these commas occur in relatively close proximity of each other. This might cause the reader to think, for example, that I am setting off the phrase, “teaches courses,” from the main line of the sentence. But that’s not at all what I am doing. Those two commas are not acting as a paired group to set off “teaches courses.” Just to know for sure, let’s remove the phrase to see if it is not part of the sentence’s main line:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, but he performs other duties, . . .

Yuck!–That omission didn’t work out very well. It didn’t work because those two commas—although very close in proximity—are not working together to set off the phrase “teaches courses.” Those commas are performing two separate roles. The first comma (the one before teaches) is acting as the closing comma for setting off the phrase “like most educators” from the main line of the sentence. It applies backward to the previous phrase—not forward to the following one. The second comma (the one that occurs between educators and but) serves the role of strengthening the conjunction but as a sentence combiner.

In other words, when confused by closely placed comma groups, the reader sees this . . .

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the red parts, and the sentence makes zero sense.)

. . . and not the intended message:

Professor Pierson, like most educators, teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, and, last but not least, student advising. (Remove the green parts, and the sentence makes perfect sense–even if it’s a little less detailed.)

Let’s remove those (green) groups to see if we are left with a sentence that flows and makes sense:

Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties, including course planning, committee work, student advising.

That reads perfectly well. Now we are seeing the comma groups correctly, as the omissions above confirm. However, seeing those groups correctly takes some effort, so our readers may not see those groups as we intend. Also, removing these modifying phrases is simply a test for identifying comma groups; the writer should not remove them in the finished sentence. Think about it: the writer was inclined to include these points to write a detailed, fully qualified statement. With that goal in mind, is there a way to keep the qualifying, modifying phrases, while avoiding comma confusion?

Sure there is! Let’s use some simple techniques to make the intended message clear:

Like most educators, Professor Pierson teaches courses, but he performs other duties: course planning, committee work, and–last but not least–student advising. (Ah-ha!)

Here’s what I did:

1. I reordered parts of the sentence to eliminate the need for mid-sentence interrupters. (I moved the phrase “like most educators” to the beginning of the sentence.)

2. I used a colon to introduce the list of Professor Pierson’s tasks (instead of using including–which requires a comma). In effect, this replacement eliminates the need for yet another cluttered comma. (A colon is one dot above the other: quite the useful writing technique. I will discuss it further in the Writer’s Toolbox series on advanced punctuation.)

3. I used dashes instead of commas to set off the modifying phrase “last but not least” within the list. This way, the modifying phrase is not seen as another item in the comma-separated list. Also, since dashes often create a spontaneous tone for the parts they set off, they are more fitting to the sentence’s style.

An Analogy for Avoiding Comma Confusion

Here is an analogy for understanding comma clutter: when a sentence becomes cluttered with commas, it is the equivalent of two employees from different companies, who—as chance would have it—are working in town within just a few feet of one another. Understandably, a passerby might mistakenly think that they are working together on the same project, when they are really performing two completely separate tasks.

The solution? Simple: just put the two workers in different uniforms. That way,  people will not become confused as to the companies the workers represent.

Sentences are the same way. When I have many groupings of words, clauses, lists, and phrases in one sentence, I need to put those different workers in distinctive uniforms so that my reader will not become confused as to what those workers are doing. That’s where the writer’s toolbox comes in: the more the writer knows about dashes, colons, parentheses, and other writing tools, the more options she has for developing accurate, crystal-clear sentences.

Next Up: More on Alternative Punctuation

I have mentioned how dashes and parentheses can act as alternatives to commas, particularly for purposes of avoiding comma confusion. But what else do these specialized forms of punctuation do? To learn more, see the next article.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Comma Function: Other Comma Separations

In addition to separating items in lists, commas separate other things. For example, commas separate elements within a date, specifically the day of the month and the year:

Christopher Altman’s birthday is November 18, 1977.

Do you hear the pause between “18” and “1977”? Do you hear the slight change in pitch? That single comma creates both of those effects. Comma functions often overlap in this way.

I should also mention that November 18 is my actual birthday. Mark it on your calendar and send me a present when that date rolls around. And when you send me that computer or flat-screen TV (okay, okay–I’ll settle for a good book!), make sure to note that I live in Syracuse, NY—and don’t forget that comma between city and state.

Commas Make Long Numerical Expressions Easy to Read

Commas also serve an important but often under appreciated function in writing large numbers: they separate numbers into sets of three digits to help the reader differentiate between large number groups like millions, billions, trillions, and so on. Here is an example of a number without commas:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40927943.00.

Ugh. That’s hard to read. Now, try this one:

Over the course of the last fiscal year, the company earned $40,927,943.00

Unless you are very good with numbers, I expect you had a great deal of trouble figuring out if that first number was in the 40 millions or the 400 millions. In fact, I’ll wager that many readers attempting to identify that comma-less number would identify it by mentally grouping the numbers, from right to left, into sets of three. The comma does that for the reader, allowing her to know the identity of large numbers, at a glance. Yet again—even with numerical expressions—the comma functions to serve our readers. (Note: a space does not follow a comma within a number.)

As a courtesy to our readers, we should apply this rule even to easy-to-read four-digit numbers:

In November, my delighted readers are going to send me that flat-screen television–one that costs over $6,000.00!

(Why do I get the feeling that I’m far more likely to find a 6,000-page book in my mailbox in November?)

Next Up: When Commas Collide

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses, commas are useful, indeed essential, to clear, effective writing, another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

Did you find the previous sentence confusing? I’ll bet you did. Here’s why: comma confusion. All of the commas that appear in that sentence are serving legitimate comma functions. The issue is that those functions are colliding, causing the reader to become confused between the different commas and their separations.

Here is a revised version of that sentence:

Whether they are separating cities and states, dividing items in running lists, or setting off mid-sentence interrupting clauses; commas are useful—indeed essential—to clear, effective writing: another reason that the comma is a good punctuation technique to develop.

(Much easier to read, isn’t it?)

Want to learn more? The next article explores comma confusion and ways to avoid it. Check it out by clicking the link below. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).