I started making notes about commas after a former colleague asked for help with a job application. I made notes for him on my edits and when I wasn’t sure why I wanted to change something, I checked online. That was when my investigation ran away with itself; there was much more to commas than I’d realised.
My comma notes have since stretched to fill four blog posts. And that’s just the basics. I’ll try to avoid mentioning subjunctives, subordinates, or even relatives.
The LURE of Commas
The web page of the University of Sussex library offers a helpful guide to commas at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/comma. This classifies them into four types: listing, joining, gapping and bracketing.
I’ve renamed this quartet of commas as Listing, Uniting, Replacing and Enclosing, because I can remember them more easily as an acronym.
The Listing comma can always be replaced by the word and or the word or.
I live with Sam, a friend and a dog.
I live with Sam and a friend and a dog.
Would you like pasta, rice or chips?
Would you like pasta or rice or chips?
The Uniting comma joins two sentences as long as it is followed by a connecting word, such as and, or, but, yet or while.
I am tall, but my sister is even taller.
I am tall, and my sister is even taller.
I am tall, yet my sister is short.
You must eat, or you won’t grow tall.
Although you’ll remember from my previous blog post that short sentences like these with a clear meaning can manage without the comma.
I am tall but my sister is taller.
You must eat or you won’t grow tall.
The bell rang and the classroom emptied.
The Replacing comma shows you have left out some words to avoid repetition.
I am the tallest of us and my sister, the shortest.
On Monday the rain fell and on Tuesday, the snow.
Enclosing commas come in pairs and act like brackets. (Okay – Bracketing is a better description… but would you remember LURB?)
If you remove the phrase between the enclosing commas, the sentence should still make sense.
My brother, who wears a hoodie, never takes an umbrella.
Be alert for a ‘hidden’ enclosing comma that has been overruled by the start or end of the sentence.
The weather has been unpredictable, to put it mildly.
Now try LURE out on this sentence.
The torrential rain this morning, was heavier than yesterday.
L – This comma can’t be replaced by and or or; so it isn’t a Listing comma;
U – The comma isn’t followed by a connecting word, so can’t be a Uniting comma;
R – No words have been left out, so this isn’t a Replacing comma;
E – The comma isn’t one of a pair of Enclosing commas. The words before the comma can’t be safely removed, nor the words after it; the result, in either case, would not be a sentence.
Since it doesn’t fit any of these situations, the comma shouldn’t be there.
The torrential rain this morning was heavier than yesterday.
You can find more details, further examples, and a handy summary sheet, at http://www.sussex.ac.uk/informatics/punctuation/comma.
Words like who, which, and whose, bring comma complications of their own. I’m saving those for next time.
Does anyone have a favourite tip for uncluttering commas?
Please share it with us.