Commas for Zombies: A Punctuation Guide

Eats, Won't Leave, So Shoot!

Eats, Won’t Leave, So Shoot!

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.

Additional Thoughts

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”

Living and Working With My Inner Eighth Grade English Teacher

I don’t have an inner child.  In point of fact, I am a child; I just happen to have a lot of seniority.  But I do have an inner eighth grade English teacher.  And lately, he’s not amused.  He sees the way English speakers abuse the language when they write, and he wants to hand out lousy grades.  Or at least, he wants to correct their grammar and spelling.  But what drives him to distraction is the way otherwise intelligent people write simple declarative sentences padded with colloquialisms that add no value, or word combinations that “sound like” the words which they should use.

“I’m going to try and quit smoking.”  No, you’re going to quit smoking.  Or you’re going to try to quit smoking.  But not both!  Search for “try and” and replace with “try to.”  You can safely “replace all,” because there is no circumstance in which “try and” is correct!

“In the event of failure, get ahold of the support desk.”  Get ahold?  Get a grip!  You should contact technical support.  I thought this was a “Texas thang” until I saw it written by an author from Boston.

“You should of contacted the system administrator.”  No, you should have contacted the system administrator.  If you decide to use the contraction “should’ve,” I’ll look the other way.  But there is no “should of,” “would of,” or “could of.”

“When I went to open a new application, the system froze.”  No, you didn’t go anywhere.  You attempted to open a new application.  I manage to ignore this sort of thing when people say it in a conversation, but there are limits to my tolerance.

“We plan to keep on using Microsoft Project.”  No, you plan to continue using MS Project.  That old blues song lyric, “I’m gonna keep on keepin’ on” is only effective because it’s wrong.

It’s difficult sharing my otherwise easy-going personality with a strong-willed alter ego.  Medication hasn’t helped.  Scotch seems to work fairly well, but it’s difficult to justify four fingers of single-malt when I’m reviewing a draft project document.  Consequently, I’ve had to find ways to channel my inner eighth grade English teacher’s energies.  I let him find ways to focus the narrative; some descriptions are improved just by changing the order of the sentences.  Sometimes, I give him a chance to improve a list of bullet points by putting them in a common structure.  Other times, I let him re-write a painfully worded paragraph.  It keeps him from outright rebellion, without annoying my colleagues and clients.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to redline The Lord’s Prayer …