Improve your comma sense | Sunday Observer

Improve your comma sense

4 June, 2023

Most of us have common sense, but it is doubtful whether we have a comma sense. All of us know what a comma is. Its chief function is to separate or set off different parts of a sentence. We use commas to avoid ambiguity and to achieve greater clarity.

If you do not use a comma at a particular place in a sentence, it becomes unwieldy. However, teachers always ask their students to use commas sparingly. This is because too many commas may hold up the flow of thoughts and irritate the reader. There are, however, occasions when you have to use commas. Sometimes the use of commas can be a matter of choice. At times the comma should not be used at all.

Grammarians have given us a clear-cut guideline for the use of commas. For instance, a comma is used between two main clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but’: It has been exceptionally warm today, but rain is forecast for tomorrow. The comma is used to separate three or more clauses, words or phrases:

Amanda picked up her travelling bag, mobile phone and sunglasses before leaving her apartment.

The above sentence can be written with the Oxford or Harvard comma: Amanda picked up her travelling bag, mobile phone, and sunglasses before leaving her apartment.

Oxford comma

Even some of us who have studied grammar in-depth may not have heard of the serial comma, sometimes known as the Oxford or Harvard comma. It is the comma often put before the word ‘and’ in a list. Some writers have a passion to use the Oxford commas while others condemn it.

They say the Oxford comma is a sure sign of a deranged mind! If you look at it logically, there is no need of the Oxford comma. However, it may be useful in certain situations. ‘Grammarly,’ a website dedicated to language, gives an example of a sentence from Sky News:

“Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set.” A comma after the word ‘tribute’ would have saved Obama and Castro from embarrassment.In modern English the comma is often omitted before the conjunction connecting the two items as in the above example.

The Oxford comma is now outdated in British English, but it survives in American English. The Times also advises its journalists not to use the so-called Oxford comma before the word ‘and.’ One of the most important functions of the comma is to set off a phrase or clause in the middle of a sentence: My granddaughter, who studies at a private university, is a keen photographer.

Hilarious confusions

The uses and abuses of the comma are many. However, the simple looking comma can lead to hilarious confusions for the unwary. Ann Patchett, a well-known writer, in a letter to the New York Times pointed out a glaring mistake in a review of her book published in it. The reviewer had mentioned: “From her stabilising second marriage to her beloved dog to her passion for books…” She protested that the sentence indicated that she was married to a dog. The hilarious confusion could have been avoided if the reviewer had used commas in appropriate places:

From her stabilising second marriage, to her beloved dog, her passion for books. The real problem with the comma is that most writers do not know where to use it. They are also unaware that the comma has a chequered history. Originally, before the invention of the modern comma, medieval monks used a ‘virgule’ that looked like a slash (/).

They used it whenever they felt a speaker should pause while reading a manuscript. In the late 1400s, an Italian printer named Aldus Manutius created the modern comma.

Today we use the comma to indicate a pause. However, this has caused some problems. To avoid any possible confusion, read the sentence without the words separated by a comma. Then you can easily put a comma or omit it. You should be guided by the meaning. Now look at the following sentence:

My wife went shopping with her friend, Grace. The comma indicates that my wife has only one friend and she is Grace. If you remove the comma, the sentence would mean that my wife has several friends including Grace.

If you use a comma to mark off an extra bit in the middle of a sentence, you have to add another comma to mark the end of the extra bit: The boy, who is five years old, bears the name Max.

Comma splice

If you use a comma splice, it creates some confusion: Some university students are an unruly lot, they are not interested in learning. When you read such a sentence, you stop at the end of the first section and pause.

To avoid such ambiguity, use a linking word such as ‘and’ or ‘but’ instead of the comma: Some university students are an unruly lot and they are not interested in learning. The well-known writer E.B. White once wrote: “Commas in the New Yorker fall flat with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim. In an ideal world what you need is clinical punctuation, not forensic.”

Whatever is said to the contrary, the comma is the most flexible and versatile of all the punctuation marks. It is also the most complex and subtle. Not surprisingly, most writers feel a nagging uncertainty about using the comma. The trouble starts when you think that the comma indicates a ‘breath pause.’ Today the placement of commas invariably follows grammatical rules. In the sentence “Every year over the British Isles, half a million meteorites enter the atmosphere” the comma indicates a breath pause in speech. However, in writing, the comma can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence.

Wrong comma placement is very common. The following sentence was taken from The Economist.

“But the ferry’s high cost and steadily declining number of passengers, cannot be cured by government subsidy.”

In fact the comma after the word ‘passengers’ is redundant. Therefore, it is useful to know when and where to use the comma in modern English.

Commas are necessary:

* To set apart names and persons (Are you meeting him, John?)
* To itemise words (Please bring a towel, soap, a toothbrush and extra clothes.)

* To enclose additional thoughts (The editor thought it was, arguably, one of his finest stories.)
* To set apart interjections (Look, he’s gone!)

* To introduce a question (He is marrying Jane, isn’t he?)
* To emphasise a point of view (Of course, you deserve a promotion.)

* To reinforce a statement (He will pass the exam, I am sure.)
To some extent, the apt use of the comma is an acquired skill. Therefore, closely study how well-known writers use the comma.

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