Course 1: Lesson 7
There are literally hundreds of technical English grammatical rules. Most writers who do not know all the rules well are rarely willing to learn them when they get older. As a result, many writers become adept at avoiding available writing courses for fear of exposing their weaknesses. This most often leads to poor performance when good writing skills are needed to successfully complete writing projects.
As we have seen, it is unnecessary for writers to memorize hundreds of grammatical rules. However, the essence of a few grammatical concepts must be understood before writing skills will improve.
Let us now consider some essential writing concepts concerning comma usage.
Commas serve several important functions. Unfortunately, they are often either not used or are used improperly by most everyday writers. When this happens, readers have a great deal of trouble ascertaining the writer’s meaning in written communications. As a result, even though the writer has spent a great deal of time preparing what he wishes to say, the ultimate result is poor because the reader was focused on deciphering the writing and missed the essence of the writer’s message.
In college, it sometimes takes longer to read a ten-page term paper than it does to read a short story. Why? Because there are so many commas missing from the paper the instructor must guess at the meaning of every sentence. After enduring such a tedious process, the instructor can hardly be blamed for concluding the paper was poorly written. Commas are essential to writing clarity.
There are many grammar rules applicable to comma usage. I have selected only three – the three most often violated by everyday writers.
Let us consider them separately.
First, to avoid confusion, follow this concept:
Use commas to introduce sentences, setting off nonessential parts of a sentence.
Look at the following sentence:
In the summer of 2018, I finally landed a full-time job.
What is the sentence about? It is about landing a full-time job. The sentence could read:
I finally landed a full-time job.
This is the essence of the idea being communicated by the writer. It stands on its own.
Now look at the phrase before it:
In the summer of 2018
This phrase is a fragment, not a sentence. It cannot stand on its own. It simply introduces the main idea of the sentence pertaining to landing the job. In other words, it introduces the sentence. Therefore, it must be set off from the sentence so as not to confuse the reader into believing it is part of the essence of the main sentence. The comma is the device that sets the introductory phrase apart from the main sentence.
Let us look at more examples:
Being content to stay at home, Gary passed up the opportunity to join us at the beach.
Gary’s missed opportunity is the essence of the sentence. The fragment describing Gary’s happiness with his decision cannot stand on its own. It simply introduces the main sentence and is set off from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
Here’s another example:
Frankly, I don’t care.
The essence of the sentence is the lack of caring. It stands alone. Frankly is a fragment that introduces the main idea the writer is attempting to communicate.
Here is another simple example:
Alfred Hitchcock, the director of several classic horror tales, was extremely talented in his field.
Notice the two commas. The essence of this sentence is:
Alfred Hitchcock was extremely talented in his field.
The phrase about the horror tales is a fragment that is not essential to the main sentence. As such, it must be set off from the rest of the writer’s idea. Since the phrase has been placed in the middle of the sentence instead of the beginning, it must be set off using two commas, before and after the phrase. One concept all writers should use to their advantage is:
Use commas to introduce sentences, setting off nonessential parts of a sentence.
A second grammar concept frequently abused by writers involves the separation of items in a series (or the failure to separate them with commas).
Consider the following sentence:
Marcia loves hiking, fishing, camping, and swimming.
The reader easily pauses in the appropriate places because the writer has separated the series of items in this sentence with commas. Of course, this sentence is quite simple. Suppose, instead, the writer of the following sentence chose to ignore the separating commas:
Peter bought a boat car fishing rod bicycle and camera in one afternoon.
The reader might wonder why the confused writer is referring to a boat car. Is it a car that floats? Is it a boat capable of highway travel? Of course, it is not. The writer knows the boat and the car are two separate items – but the reader may not. The sentence should read:
Peter bought a boat, a car, a fishing rod, a bicycle, and a camera in one afternoon.
Let us try another example of the application of this simple concept:
Karen loves pets. She has a cat dog and a bird.
Wouldn’t you just love to see what a cat dog looks like? Is it a dog that climbs trees? Is it a dog that hunts cats? Is it a cat with the head of a dog? Silly? Of course, it is.
Nevertheless, that is what the writer offered to the reader. Most of us are aware of what cats and dogs look like. Some of us might not be aware of the difference between alpha, beta, gamma, or delta. History professors might not know that genus and species are different biological concepts. It is the responsibility of the writer to make these distinctions clear to the reader. The sentence above should read:
Karen loves pets. She has a cat, a dog, and a bird.
Now, there is no confusion.
Remember this important writing concept:
Use commas to separate a series of items in a sentence.
Readers have no awareness of the writer’s intention to pause between items in a sentence unless the writer properly uses commas.
Look at the following sentence written three different ways:
Without Proper Punctuation: As the man turned his head went into the study and slammed the door she cried.
With Improper Punctuation: As the man turned, his head went into the study and slammed the door, she cried.
With Proper Punctuation: As the man turned his head, went into the study, and slammed the door, she cried.
Notice how the commas allow the reader to understand where the writer intends to pause.
A third frequently abused comma concept arises from the use of quotations in a sentence. Writers often quote statements in sentences without making it clear to their readers what part of the sentence is the actual quote. When this occurs, readers must guess.
For example, suppose someone writes:
The Declaration of Independence states we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal when in fact history teaches us that some segments of the population have been treated unequally.
Can you identify the language in the Declaration of Independence? Did Jefferson actually use the word history? Will you find the phrase segments of the population in the Declaration of Independence? Where does the quote begin? Where does the quote end? To avoid this common problem, apply the following concept to your writing:
Use commas to set off quotes from the remainder of the sentence.
Thus, the sentence above should read:
The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” when in fact history teaches us that some segments of the population have been treated unequally.
Everyday writers, especially when preparing lengthy documents, frequently include quotations in their communications. It is the responsibility of the writer, not the reader, to determine what is being quoted and what is not. Of Course, the required quotation marks also help.
Let us try another example. Suppose a person writes:
Now you’re going to walk the plank Jason the pirate yelled.
Is Jason about to walk the plank, or is he the pirate? Is the writer attempting to tell us a pirate by the name of Jason yelled to someone that he or she was about to meet a watery grave? Or is the writer trying to tell us that poor Jason was about to walk the plank because some pirate had determined Jason’s time was up? The writer probably means:
“Now you’re going to walk the plank Jason,” the pirate yelled.
Now, this sentence clearly indicates the pirate is yelling and Jason is the victim.
For practice, carefully read the following sentences containing commas. They are all correct:
1. He hit the ball, dropped the bat, and ran to first base.
2. He hit the ball well, but he ran toward third base.
3. Running toward third base, he realized how silly he looked.
4. The bridge, which spans the Connecticut River, is falling down.
5. The author wrote, “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
6. For most, the year is already finished.
7. Outside, the lawn was cluttered with branches.
Most of us are familiar with the concept of the run-on sentence. It occurs when writers ramble on, writing long sentences, even paragraphs that seem endless. However, run-on sentences are more often a result of one of the worst grammatical offenses by any writer – THE COMMA SPLICE!
Comma splices result when the writer takes two independent thoughts and attempts to combine them into one sentence using a comma.
For example, look at the following sentence:
I love politics.
Clearly, this is a sentence. It contains a complete thought. It has a subject, a verb, and an object.
Likewise, read this similar sentence:
I hate politicians.
This, too, is a complete sentence. Written as two separate sentences, the words are grammatically correct. However, as demonstrated in the following example, when the writer attempts to join the two independent thoughts with a comma, disaster often strikes – THE COMMA SPLICE!
I love politics, I hate politicians.
Conjunctions are words like and, but, and or that might be used with commas to conjoin sentences. For example:
I love politics, but I hate politicians.
In the sentence above, the comma is used with a conjunction to join the sentences together properly. Otherwise, the sentences must remain separate.
Remember, run-on sentences are either just too long, or they result from THE COMMA SPLICE! Do not proceed to the next step in our writing process until you are certain you understand the problems with the sentences below. They represent awful writing:
1. Some students think studying all night guarantees a good grade, they are probably wrong.
2. Sally and Jill are good friends, they have been friends since grammar school.
3. Jane is healthy, she eats a good breakfast every day.
4. Kevin is a hard worker, he shows it every day.
All the sentences above are comma spliced. In order for everyday writers to improve their written communication talents drastically, they must eliminate this problem. They must separate their independent ideas into separate sentences.
It is important to understand that commas are essential to good communication skills.
Commas are used to introduce sentences, setting off the non-essential parts; Commas are used to separate a series of items in a sentence; Commas are used to set off quotes from the remainder of the sentence; Do not comma splice!