Whether you are writing an essay for school homework, a business report, a thesis for a doctorate, an article for publication or a novel, the first thing that will be noticed about your work is how accurately it is punctuated. And first impressions are so important; they can make the difference between a good mark or a bad mark, between success and failure. Therefore, the simple rules set out below are well worth mastering.
Consider this old chestnut:
The Bishop said the boy is stupid.
In this sentence, it is clear that the boy is stupid according to the Bishop.
Now consider this version:
The Bishop, said the boy, is stupid.
Here, the meaning is reversed: the Bishop is stupid according to the boy.
Inaccurate punctuation, particularly commas, can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
Fortunately, there are only four types of comma to worry about:
Parenthetical commas enclose a relative clause or phrase that is a weak interruption and, therefore, not essential to the meaning of a sentence.
If you remove the commas and the words they enclose, the sentence should still make complete sense, and its meaning should not be affected.
In the second version of the above example, the words “said the boy” are within parenthetical commas. If we remove those commas and words, the sentence becomes:
The Bishop is stupid.
The meaning is still perfectly clear and unchanged by the removal of the words “said the boy”.
Where the relative clause or phrase is either at the beginning or the end of a sentence, only one comma is needed. In these cases, the other comma is replaced either by the full stop (period) at the end of the sentence or the full stop at the end of the preceding sentence.
This is, so to speak, a good example.
This is a good example, so to speak.
In both cases, “so to speak” is a weak interruption and can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. All the commas are bracketing commas.
You must be certain that the relative clause is a weak interruption and not essential to the meaning of the sentence. You may leave out parenthetical commas but only if the meaning of the sentence is clear without them. Take care, though, because what may be clear to you may not be to someone else.
To separate words in a list.
Listing commas typically apply to two types of list:
In all cases, the comma can be replaced by either and or or, however,
In US English, a comma is always placed before the and/or in a list of items/events. In UK English, however, a comma before the and/or is only used when needed for clarity.
Compare the following with example (1) above:
The comma after ‘Williams’ is needed to make the reader aware that Gilbert and Sullivan are one item and not separate composers. This is known as the ‘Oxford comma’ in the UK.
The comma after ‘Sullivan’ is needed to show that all the listed composers are pre-eminent and not just Gilbert and Sullivan. Compare with this:
Edward Elgar, Benjamin Britten and Vaughan Williams are pre-eminent among British composers.
In this case, a listing comma is not needed before the ‘and’ (except in the US) because we no longer have the Gilbert and Sullivan problem. Also, a comma is not needed after ‘Williams’ because the plural verb ‘are’ tells us that all the listed composers are pre-eminent.
Use a joining comma to link two, and only two, complete simple sentences joined by any one of the conjunctions and, or, but, yet, while, but not otherwise.
Do the words before and after the conjunction represent two complete simple sentences?
(A simple sentence is one that includes a subject and a verb. It may also include an object, depending on the verb.)
In the first example, the words after the conjunction ‘but’ [I have yet to find a publisher] are a complete simple sentence and therefore a joining comma is required before ‘but’. (Note that the words before the comma are also a complete simple sentence.)
In the second example, the words after ‘and’ [have not approached a publisher] are not a complete sentence because the verb has no subject, and, therefore, a comma is not used.
The gapping comma is occasionally required to avoid unnecessary repetition. Here, the comma indicates that a word or words have been deliberately left out because they are ‘understood’ from what has gone before.
Does the sentence make more sense with or without the comma? This is a question of judgement. If in doubt, include the comma.
A gapping comma allows you to avoid repeating the words ‘Australians are devoted’:
Here, the comma after ‘others’ fills the gap where the words ‘Australians are devoted’ would normally appear.
Note the semicolon after ‘cricket’. If we use a comma instead of a semicolon, it will look as if the word ‘others’ is enclosed by bracketing commas and may be removed from the sentence. See what happens if we do that:
This is clearly nonsense but easily overcome by using a semicolon instead of a comma.
A gapping comma may be omitted, if the meaning is clear without it. However, take great care because some editors/markers/readers may expect to see the correct use of a gapping comma, and/or you may inadvertently break another rule by omitting it.
Consider this version:
Here the meaning appears to be clear. However, the ‘others’ might now include non-Australians, which does change the meaning of the sentence. In any case, a purist (okay, read pedant) may question what type of comma is being used after ‘cricket’.
So, what sort of comma is it? Well, actually, it is just plain wrong, yet you will often come across this construction.
Can we fix this version by replacing the comma with a semicolon? No because then we will be breaking the rules for semicolons.
Always apply the simple rules for gapping commas as shown above. Failing that, recast the sentence in such a way that a gapping comma is not needed.
And that is all there is to learn about commas.
The following extract from Tony Thistlewood's historical novel, When the Time is Ripe, provides general examples of the above points.
"The hold of a nearby ship opened and the air was suddenly filled with the exotic aroma of spices: pepper and cloves, mace and nutmeg, cinnamon and green ginger, all evoking the mystery and romance of far-flung places.
Caistor turned back to the quay and watched, fascinated, as bales of silks, damasks, taffetas, velvet and wool, barrels of wine and sherry, hogsheads of sugar and cases full of ivory, shells or marble, were trundled about the docks on wooden barrows. It all seemed so haphazard, so inefficient, and yet the dockworkers appeared to know what they were doing. Even the grunts, squeals and cackles of a multitude of frightened animals added to the vibrant, cacophonous atmosphere of the docks.
And above it all, disembodied voices screamed a variety of warnings.
‘Mind yer backs!’ was a common cry, as overloaded barrows were manhandled along the quay. ‘Look out below!’ screamed another, as something dropped dangerously from high up in a ship’s rigging; while shouts of ‘Lighter ahoy!’ drifted in from the misty river where small barges fought for space on the crowded water."
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