Monday, September 16, 2019

Commas, Part 1

The time has finally come to talk commas. I did a piece on semicolons five years ago; you can see that one here. Today's focus will be on commas, and it's partly because of a running joke between me and John McCrarey, who is a fine writer, but who has almost no idea where and when to use commas.

Commas are actually a complex subject because their placement isn't governed by a single rule of punctuation, but I don't think they're that hard to master. That being said, this comma spiel is going to be in several parts, moving from major points to rather minor ones.

Part 1: introductory expressions and separating independent clauses
Part 2: separating clauses in complex sentences (independent + dependent clauses)
Part 3: comma splices
Part 4: marking items on a list (featuring the dreaded Oxford comma)
Part 5: vocative commas (I've covered these before; see previous link)
Part 6: parenthetical expressions
Part 7: coordinate adjectives
Part 8: "which" and non-restrictive clauses
Part 9: quotations
Part 10: appositives and commas
Part 11: commas interrupting subject and verb
Part 12: miscellaneous uses (this probably won't be much of a post)

First and foremost: the thing that makes me want to pull my hair out is when people heedlessly claim that "a comma is used to mark pauses." This is a highly frustrating claim. In a sense, it's not completely wrong, for commas can indeed be used to mark pauses. My problem with such a guideline (and that's all it is—a rule of thumb and not anything close to a definition) is that it's misleading. If this is the only thing you know about commas, you're going to end up putting them where they don't belong, and you'll stupidly leave them out when you actually need them.

I should step back and make a cultural note, too: comma usage is fading in all English-speaking societies, especially as the corner-cutting that comes with online writing makes us all less and less literate, but the Brits are ahead of the Yanks when it comes to comma-murder. I don't know why, but the Brits seem to have a fairly visceral hatred of commas, and much of what I'm going to lay out in this series of posts will seem quite foreign to modern speakers of the Queen's English, despite the fact that the rules I'll be referring to arguably had their origins in England long before they migrated to the New World. Examples of British comma-hatred abound. Look at some recent ugly specimens from The Guardian online:

• In total[,] some 100 jobs are earmarked to be cut from the 725-strong editorial workforce and 150 from commercial departments, support functions such as finance and human resources[,] and other parts of the business.

• “Our plan of action has one goal: to secure the journalistic integrity and financial independence of the Guardian in perpetuity,” they wrote, before adding they hoped the cuts would all be voluntary[,] and that compulsory redundancies would only be considered only “if necessary”.
Take a look at any random British publication online, and you'll see this hatred for commas pretty much everywhere. Will it be up to us barbaric Yanks to defend the dying comma? I doubt it; we're busy murdering it, too, albeit more slowly.

Commas, Part 1: introductory expressions and separating independent clauses

An introductory expression can be a single word or a phrase. It comes at the head of a sentence and sets the mood or frames the situation. This is also one of the places where comma-murder is most visible because people on both sides of the pond are increasingly dropping their commas here. So keep in mind that, while I generally advocate using a comma after an introductory expression, modern usage is working against me, and in all likelihood, either most modern readers won't notice when you've dropped the comma, or they will notice but just won't care. Some examples of introductory expressions (with commas, of course):

• Five years ago, I had a record-breaking bowel movement.
• Unfortunately, my wife wasn't able to video it in time.
• To add insult to injury, my two-year-old immediately ran in and flushed the toilet.
• Inside, I was seething.
• Nevertheless, I smiled at my daughter.

See how that works? For the "commas mark a pause" crowd, you'll see quite clearly that the marking-a-pause role is fulfilled in all of the above cases. If, however, your introductory expression is a coordinating conjunction, I think you're free to leave the comma off. Keeping the comma in feels archaic, even to me. Look at the following:

• But I admit I sometimes wanted to flush my daughter down the toilet.
• So I'd sneak over to the local Catholic church to confess my murderous thoughts.

To be clear: I'm saying that the above sentences are correct without commas. Mentally insert commas after "But" and "So," and you'll note how archaic those sentences suddenly feel.

Now, let's switch gears and talk about using commas to separate independent clauses.

If you don't know what a clause is, then you'll never master the art of comma placement. A clause is a group of words containing a subject and a predicate. Every complete sentence has at least one clause in it, and a clause can be as short as two words: Jesus farted.

Jesus = subject
farted = verb (predicate)

An independent clause is a complete thought. It can stand on its own, and that's why we call it independent. The sentence Jesus farted is an independent clause. A dependent clause, by contrast, cannot stand alone. It is not a complete thought; it needs something more to complete it. To make a dependent clause, introduce your idea with a subordinating conjunction (before, after, because, until, although, if, once, etc.). Note that, once you slap on that subordinating conjunction—which creates a subordinate, i.e., dependent, clause—you'll need an independent clause to complete your thought. Behold a series of incomplete thoughts:

Before Jesus farted,...
After Jesus farted,...
Because Jesus farted,...
Until Jesus farted,...
Although Jesus farted,...
If Jesus farted,...
Once Jesus farted,...

That's what a dependent (or subordinate) clause looks like: it's incomplete. It depends on something else to make it a complete thought. So let's complete the above incomplete thoughts by adding independent clauses:

Before Jesus farted, the cosmos was in disarray.
After Jesus farted, the temple was dead silent.
Because Jesus farted, Man is no longer condemned to eternal hellfire.
Until Jesus farted, no one had any idea what to do.
Although Jesus farted, Satan refused to depart from the girl.
If Jesus farted, my cancer would disappear.
Once Jesus farted, the race began.

The above are all complex sentences, which are a mix of independent and dependent clauses; we'll talk about this type of sentence later. For now, though, let's concentrate on compound sentences, which are made of two independent clauses. Let's begin by looking at two independent clauses written as two separate sentences:

Jesus farted. The dog exploded.

We could join these sentences with a semicolon to make one type of compound sentence:

Jesus farted; the dog exploded.

Or we could join these sentences with a comma-conjunction, in which the conjunction is a coordinating conjunction like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so: the so-called FANBOYS. Coordinating conjunctions, along with a comma, are used to link two independent clauses together. The comma comes first, then the conjunction. To wit:

Jesus farted, and the dog exploded.

We could use other coordinating conjunctions, thereby altering the meaning of the compound sentence by changing how the independent clauses relate to each other:

The dog exploded, for Jesus had farted.
Jesus did not fart, nor did the dog explode.
Jesus farted, but the dog exploded.
Jesus farted, or the dog exploded.
Jesus farted, yet the dog exploded.
Jesus farted, so the dog exploded.

So: if you're dealing with a compound sentence, which has two independent clauses, you can link them with either a semicolon (as shown above) or a comma-conjunction. I hope, by now, that you know what these terms mean:

1. clause
2. independent clause
3. dependent clause (also called a...?)
4. coordinating conjunction (which, with a comma, links two what?)
5. subordinating conjunction (which introduces a what?)
6. compound sentence
7. complex sentence

Before we conclude Part 1, let's talk a bit about two instances in which commas aren't necessary. First, we have "or" expressions: Chicken or beef? Superman or Captain Marvel? Muhammad or Lao-tzu? Your place or mine? Trump or Hillary?

Earlier, I wrote:

An introductory expression can be a single word or a phrase.

I did not use a comma:

An introductory expression can be a single word, or a phrase.

That second, erroneous case will happen because some dumbass is thinking, "Duuuuhhhh... a comma marks a pause, and since I would read that line with a pause in it, I guess I'll stick a comma right there. Duuuuhhhh..."

Read my lips, said the vagina: Don't fucking do that. Disjunctive locutions (this usually refers to two contrasting things linked by but or or) don't take commas unless the disjunction is occurring in a compound sentence:

You can have a Fleshlight, or you can have a hand grenade up the bum.

Second, compound predicates don't take commas, either. A compound predicate is a verbal expression depicting two distinct actions separated by a coordinating conjunction—usually and or but. Examples of compound predicates, correctly and incorrectly done:

WRONG: Socrates coughed up blood, and died.
RIGHT: Socrates coughed up blood and died.

WRONG: Harry glimpsed Hermione naked, and thought about her all day.
RIGHT: Harry glimpsed Hermione naked and thought about her all day.

One exception to the compound-predicate rule is if your compound predicate contains more than two verbs:

Socrates coughed up blood, glimpsed Hermione naked, and died.

In the above sentence, the three verbs basically form items in a list (or they can be thought of as a tricolon), hence the need for commas.

We will have plenty more opportunities to talk about when not to use commas as this series continues. Pay as much attention to those sections as to the main explanations. The unnecessary addition of commas is just as bad as the unnecessary omission of commas.


John Mac said...

Tell us how you REALLY feel!

Wow, this comma usage thing is not going to be as easy to master as I thought. Although most of the mistakes I made in the blog post you critiqued were of omission, I fear the errors I make cut the other way as well. Let me, um, pause and think about that!

Seriously though, this is a fascinating topic and I look forward to the upcoming installments. (Do I need a comma after topic, or does that sentence constitute a compound predicate?)

Regarding the "death of the comma", it seems to me that the written word has somehow lost the distinction from the way we speak. This goes beyond the mere pausing to take a breath situation you alluded to. I think my guilt comes, at least in part, from reading what I write and thinking "that sounds right". That and my admitted ignorance on proper usage.

Anyway, I'm going to make the effort to improve, despite being an old dog. In the meantime, I appreciate your tolerance and patience.

Kevin Kim said...

Seriously though, this is a fascinating topic and I look forward to the upcoming installments. (Do I need a comma after topic, or does that sentence constitute a compound predicate?)

You need a comma after "topic" because you need a comma-and to separate two independent clauses. The two clauses are "this is" and "I look forward to." (Look forward to is a phrasal verb, i.e., a single unit.)

A compound predicate is just two predicates stuck together. (Which reminds me: I need to add something about an exception to the no-comma rule I talked about.) Two predicates stuck together will NOT have a subject. If there were a subject, then a subject plus a predicate would be a clause, so I'd recommend that you continue to practice recognizing what counts as a clause or not. Until you get good at identifying clauses, this whole comma thing will remain a mystery. (Luckily, identifying clauses is just a matter of asking yourself: "Do I see both a subject and a verb?" If yes, then you're looking at a clause.)

Look at the difference between these two sentences:

1. John lumbered into the bar and began vaping furiously.
2. John lumbered into the bar, and he began vaping furiously.

Which one has the compound predicate? Which one is a compound sentence because it has two independent clauses?

John Mac said...

You didn't tell me there was going to be a test!

The first sentence has the compound predicate. The second sentence has two independent clauses.

I prefer the way the first sentence reads.

Kevin Kim said...


Yeah, I'm cruel like that. And I agree with your aesthetic assessment.