MAY 1999

Comma Controversies

Commas are like the salt we sprinkle throughout our writing adding clarity and the rhythms of speech. We could hardly live without them, and yet, tastes differ. Are there rules?

The purpose of the comma is to prevent confusion for readers. Take for example the sentence "When everybody was ready to eat, the cat jumped on the table." Without the comma , it conjures up the fleeting image of a very sorry end for kitty. Good thing for the comma! Not only can it function as the secret weapon of animal rights activists, but it also makes reading more comfortable. In this article we will take a brief look at some other places to add that refreshing pause, the comma.

Opening lines

As in the sentence above, an introductory word group is always followed by a comma. These are word groups that tell the reader when, where, how, or why the action referred to in the sentence is occurring. The opening sentence of a business letter often contains this construction. You may start out saying something like "As we discussed on the telephone, I am hereby enclosing my restaurant expenses for last month." The same rule applies to a narrative statement, which often starts out with the date on which something is taking place: "On May 13, 1999, the annual company barbecue will be held, weather permitting." Note the use of the commas to set off the year from the date and the parenthetical expression at the end. An event that has already happened, of course, is treated in the same way: "Last year, the barbecue, which featured a spectacular display of pyrotechnical effects provided by our amateur chefs, was a resounding success." Incidentally, clauses starting with "which", called nonrestrictive clauses because they contain information that is not essential to the sentence, should always be separated by commas.

And more

Commas related to the word "and" are the cause of confusion verging on controversy. The question of whether to use a comma before "and" remains hotly contested. People have often learned different rules on this one in their earliest school days, about which they will argue fiercely. The truth is, in a series of items, the comma between the last two is optional. Some people feel that it should be included to avoid ambiguity. Thus: "The recipe calls for tequila, tabasco, and fresh coriander." Most writers would probably not include the last comma in this case. However, in certain sentences it can make a difference: "My grandfather willed me his prize barbecue equipment, an arc welder, and an old tin motorboat," for example.

The comma appears more than any other punctuation mark in English. Like with cooking, you should remember a few basic rules and then add to taste. Careful use will enhance the flavour of any text.

Kate Grady