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Writing Center Workshop. Should I place a comma here, or not? Presented by Erin Joy With some examples from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.— Lynne Truss. Commas. Do commas really matter?.

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Writing Center Workshop

Should I place a comma here, or not?

Presented by Erin JoyWith some examples from Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.—Lynne Truss



Do commas really matter?

Consider this joke from Truss:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.





“Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

As the author says: “So, punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.”



Comma confusion and the inclusion illusion

  • Commas have power over us because of common misperceptions:
    • Long sentences must need a comma
    • If you can’t “hear” a comma, one isn’t needed
    • If you pause in a sentence, a comma is needed
    • While these are sometimes reliable indicators, learning some common rules can make you a confident comma dropper.



What’s a comma good for?

  • Behold the power of the comma
    • Commas have a number of functions when used correctly:
      • Separate elements in a sentence
      • Add emphasis
      • Help achieve sentence variety
    • Overall, commas clarify, or make clear, our ideas.



Common comma functions

  • Rules reviewed include commas with:
    • Introductory elements
    • Compound sentences
    • Items in a series
    • Essential and Non-essential information
    • Appositives
    • Interrupters
    • Adjectives



Magically, the rule was introduced

  • Commas with introductory elements
  • Whether a word, phrase, expression, or clause, a comma is used with introductory elements. For example:
    • Quickly, the students rushed toward the door.
    • In her book, Truss uses humor to cover grammar rules.
    • Kicking and giggling, the girls were in fits of laughter.
    • Because he couldn’t play, Max didn’t go to the game.

Note: some people do not include the comma after short introductory phrases like the second example. Still, you are not wrong to include it.



Comma or not? Compounds

  • Commas in compound sentencesWhen two independent clauses are joined together with a conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet), use a comma before the conjunction to separate. For example:
    • The class began at noon, but he didn’t come until one.
    • My boss and I don’t get along, so we avoid each other.
    • Lisa went to the bank, and she withdrew fifty dollars.

Note: the easiest way to determine if a clause is independent is to see if it could stand alone as a complete sentence.



Comma caveat

  • Watch out for other compound constructions
  • Do not use commas with conjunctions joining two nouns or two verbs instead of independent clauses.
    • Lisa went to the bank and withdrew fifty dollars. (compound verbs—no comma)
  • Do not use commas to separate two independent clauses without a conjunction, or you will create a comma splice.
    • Lisa went to the bank, she withdrew fifty dollars. (comma splice)



Commas, commas, and more commas

  • Commas with items in a series
  • A comma is used between items in a series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses.
    • We have homework in math, English, and science.
    • The family went to the movies, ate dinner at a restaurant, and slept at a hotel while on vacation.
    • Her papers are always thorough, interesting, and complete.

Note: The final comma in the series may or may not need to be there; it depends on your audience.



Serial commas

  • When do you use the serial comma?The final comma in a series is called the serial comma. In formal writing, such as research papers, theses, and dissertations, the serial comma is generally included. In informal and everyday writing, though, as found in newspapers and business correspondence, it is omitted.
    • The professor studied in Togo, Benin and Ghana.
    • The proposal would allow for expanded schools, parks and recreation areas.

Note: Outside of academic writing, the serial comma is used less and less. The most important thing, whether you use it or not, is to be consistent throughout the piece.



Essential elements

  • Essential information is comma-freeInformation that is essential to the meaning of the sentence should not be set off with commas. This includes information that is critical to maintain the integrity of the idea expressed.
    • The students who come late to class are inconsiderate.
      • Not all students are inconsiderate, just the ones who are late.
    • People who reject evolution are usually quite religious.
      • Not all people are usually quite religious, just those who reject evolution.



“By the way” commas

  • Commas with non-essential informationIf information is not essential to the meaning of a sentence, think of it as “by the way” information, and set it off with commas.
    • Mikah, who [by the way] received an MVP award, will play for North Carolina next year.
    • The invention, which [by the way] is affordable, allows patients to heal quickly after surgery.
    • Maureen, [by the way] forgetting it was a holiday, went to the bank to make a deposit.

Note: “Which” usually indicates non-essential information and is accompanied by a comma, but “that” always indicates essential information and never has a comma.



Keep the integrity of the sentence

  • Maintain the meaning of the sentenceSome sentences can look the same but be punctuated as essential or non-essential information differently depending on the context surrounding them.
    • My brother, who lives in Omaha, won the lottery last week.
    • My brother who lives in Omaha won the lottery last week.
      • The first sentence indicates that the speaker has only one brother, and she includes his location as “by the way” information. The second sentence shows the location as essential because the speaker has more than one brother, and she is speaking here specifically about the one in Omaha, not the one in Boston.



Use commas, lord of all punctuation marks

  • AppositivesAn appositive is a word or group of words that renames a noun or pronoun in a sentence. Appositives are almost always set off with commas and can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence.
    • My two favorite states, Rhode Island and Maine, are on the East Coast.
    • A dedicated teacher, Ms. James was awarded on Friday.
    • Nigeria is home to the Ogonis, a minority tribe.

Note: some appositives have essential information and are not set off with commas. For example: The famed talk show host Oprah Winfrey attended the event.



Should I, for example, put a comma here?

  • Use commas with interruptersAnything that appears to “interrupt” or show contrast somewhere in the sentence should be set off with commas.
    • No, she did not attend class last week.
    • She did, however, find time to go to Cancun.
    • I did, in fact, fail her for her excessive absences.
    • The policy was spelled out in the syllabus, wasn’t it?



The mighty, powerful, useful comma

  • Commas with adjectivesTo separate adjectives, commas are used only if the adjectives relate equally to the noun they describe. The easiest way to tell if commas are needed is to see if the adjectives can be reversed in order or if “and” can be used to separate them. If so, commas should be used.
    • They are clean, neat, tidy people.
    • or
    • The three young Italian women were featured at the panel.



Writing Center Workshop

Thank you for attending!

Although there are many other uses for the comma, this presentation covers some of the more common ones. You can find additional resources online, in writing handbooks, or by visiting us in the Writing Center.