I’ve previously written about my inner eighth grade English teacher. While I’m generally pretty easy going, he gets cranky when people whose first language is English use it poorly. Typically, it’s improper phrasing, mixed metaphors, or odd colloquialisms that set him off. Lately, he’s become annoyed by improper punctuation. The two most commonly used punctuation marks are the period and the comma. Hardly anyone gets the period wrong, but comma errors are … well, common. In this short post, I’ll summarize a few guidelines for proper use of the comma.
Commas For The Zombie Apocalypse
Consider the following sentence:
As the zombies closed in, Emily realized, to her horror, that she had left her grandmother’s teakettle on the stove, with the burner at medium-high.
In this example, “As the zombies closed in,” is an introductory clause, which is set apart by a comma. Common starter words for introductory clauses include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, and while. Similarly, commas should follow introductory words, like well, however, yes, and even similarly.
Non-essential phrases, such as “to her horror,” are also set apart with commas, before and after. If you could remove the phrase without changing the essential meaning of the sentence, then it is a non-essential phrase. A clause that begins with that is always essential.
Use a comma to separate free modifiers, which describe attributes of some element at the beginning or middle of a sentence. “With the burner at medium-high,” modifies the teakettle on the stove. If it isn’t clear what is being modified, re-structure the sentence.
Rob fired a warning shot, but the zombies continued to advance.
In this example, the comma separates two independent clauses, joined by the coordinating conjunction but. The other coordinating conjunctions are and, for, or, not, so, and yet. The comma always precedes the conjunction.
Greta backed away from the lumbering, rotting zombie.
If two adjectives modify the same noun, and the meaning would be the same if the order of the adjectives were reversed, then separate them with a comma.
The zombies were merely hungry, not sadistic.
Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasting elements. In this example, not is our cue. Other contrast cues include versus and as opposed to.
Emily, Rob, and Greta fought the zombies with guns, knives, and axes.
Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series. The comma before the and is referred to as an Oxford comma. Some sources say to always use it, while others say it should only be used to avoid confusion. Like neckties and Dos Equis, it’s a style choice.
A comma is not an indicator of when to pause. Never put a comma between a subject and its verb, even if you’d read it aloud that way. Also, a comma is not the only choice for joining two sentence parts; consider using the semi-colon. If you imbed a quote in the middle of a sentence, place a comma before both the opening and the closing quotation marks. Finally, remember Will Strunk’s advice, “Omit needless words.” Brevity requires little punctuation.
I’ve included a barrel-full of commas in this short article, in both the examples and the explanations, to illustrate proper usage. If you think I’ve omitted or misused one or more of them, leave a comment.
Zombie image courtesy of AMC, “The Walking Dead”