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A bit about commas…

August 12, 2015

The comma is a complicated, misused, misunderstood little beast. A piece of punctuation that everyone uses, but not always correctly. The comma is magical. It can change the meaning of a sentence, give emphasis, structure and coherence. The comma is a wonderful thing. A thing of beautiful simplicity and wonder. In the right hand it can make a sentence soar, giving it splendid wings. In the wrong hand it can cause a sentence to crash and burn. Let’s take a closer look at our friend, the comma.

Let’s look at how we use the comma. Firstly, in order to separate elements in a list:

“He went to the shops and bought a camera, a blow-up pig, a book about celebrity beards and a can of spaghetti.”

The Oxford comma is used to prevent confusion:

“He liked tuna sandwiches, sausage rolls, and pizza.”

Without the Oxford comma it would appear that the sausage rolls and pizza were connected, almost on the same plate.

Commas are used in order to separate independent clauses:

“He was a fantastic liar, but not quite as good as his granddad.”
“He loved his Labrador, so he had her stuffed when she died.”

Commas are used to stop confusion:

“They knew the river was dry, because they had picnicked near it yesterday.”

They knew the river was dry because they had seen it. Leave out the comma and it would seem as though the river was dry because of the picnic.

A comma is used to punctuate introductory elements in a sentence:

“It was a dark night, the wolves howled demonically.”
“Sunshine, the snorkeler had no idea the goldfish was about to bite off his little toe.”

If it is a short sentence the comma can be left out.

“Shortly it will snow.”
“After washing his chin Don felt like a new man.”

If we lengthen that sentences we need a comma:

“After washing his spectacularly dirty chin, Don felt like a new man.”

Clearing up ambiguity:

“Until Autumn music lessons will take place in the igloo.”

“Until Autumn, music lessons will take place in the igloo.”

Commas are also used to denote asides or brackets:

Rachel, legs up to her armpits, strode confidently into the dojo.”
“The robot, a thing of metal and menace, blocked the door of the space station.”

Try not to forget the second comma!

Word order:

Rex, his pet pigeon, was a wonderful tailor.”
“His pet pigeon Rex was a wonderful tailor.”

Separating elements of speech:

“Touch me, ” she whispered, ”I haven’t seen you since you found the New World!”

Unless there’s other punctuation:

“Bugger off!” he snapped, “I’ve had enough of your ridiculous examples!”

Commas are used to emphasize contrast:

“He was big, but quite ugly.”
“She was sexy, but lacked real elegance.”

Separating adjectives:

“The dragon was old, purple, grumpy and smelled curiously of muffins.”
“Her dress was long, shimmering, green and sheer.”

This is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative discussion of the comma, it’s just a starting point. I’m just a humble writer, not a grammarian. The good news is, from 2016, grammar lessons will be reintroduced into schools.



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