A Word with Beth — About Commas, Part Two

Owl photographed by Raymond W. Stilborn.
Owl photographed by Raymond W. Stilborn.

At the request of a couple of readers, the Owl and I are taking a second look at commas today. Before the Owl sinks his talons into a few more comma rules and faux pas, we have a little bit of housekeeping to deal with.

Apparently, for some readers, the avatars are obscuring part of the comments, making it impossible to read them. For now, I’ve turned off the avatars altogether, until I can find out what is causing the problem. I hope that this helps. If you find that the comments are now obscured by a blank space, do let me know!

Now, let’s move on to part two of Commas, carrying on from where we left off in November in part one.

I should just say that part one and part two will still not be an exhaustive study of the use and misuse of commas, although some may find it exhausting. 😉 However, Owl and I have tried to cover some of the main points of comma usage in these two posts.

Here, then, are a few more places where commas should be used. As in part one, I have highlighted the commas that pertain to the rule in red.

1. Commas separate introductory phrases from the rest of the sentence. As usual, Beth couldn’t remember who wanted tea and who wanted lemonade.

2. Commas can completely change the meaning of a sentence, so use them carefully. Beth thought Lizzie could drink more lemonade than anyone else in the room. But is that what you really want to say? Punctuate it differently, and you have a very different sentence. Beth, thought Lizzie, could drink more lemonade than anyone else in the room.

3. Commas set off appositives in sentences. (Whoa, Beth – what’s an appositive? It’s a synonym, or descriptor, that gives you more information about the word it is explaining. And before you ask, no, there is no corresponding annegative. 😉 ) I’ve underlined the appositives in the two examples, as well as highlighting the pertinent commas. Many half-empty glasses of lemonade, a particularly tart beverage, sat on the counter. The Abyssinian, a breed of cat, eyed the guests malevolently.

4. Commas are used before clauses beginning with “which.” Beth had created a new recipe for turnip cake, which was a resounding failure.

Be aware that there are also places where commas should NOT be used.

5. Commas are NOT used before clauses beginning with “that.” The same sentence from the “which” example above, if rendered with “that,” does not receive a comma. Beth had created a new recipe for turnip cake that was a resounding failure.

6. Commas do NOT need to separate conjunctions from the clause that follows them. You may have been taught differently, but it is not necessary to do this. Many people would have put a comma after “but” in that sentence. That’s not necessary.

7. Commas are NOT used every time you would pause or take a breath when reading aloud. This is a very common error. Often as one writes, it seems natural to insert a comma, every time there seems to be a pause in the sentence. This is not necessary, nor is the comma after “comma” in the example.

8. Commas are NOT used to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a conjunction. If the two clauses look as though they should be separate sentences, they should be written as such. Otherwise, you are committing a “comma splice.” The turnip cake was one of Beth’s experiments, it would have been better if she had left the carrot cake recipe alone. It would also have been better if she had punctuated that as two separate sentences. The turnip cake was one of Beth’s experiments. It would have been better if she had left the carrot cake recipe alone.

Once again, the Owl and I have given you a rule for each of the Owl’s talons. We hope this has helped you get a better grip on comma use. If in doubt at any point, there are many good grammar resources both online and at your library – or you can email the Owl and me at mail (at) flubs2fixes (dot) com.

If you have any other questions, quandaries or pet peeves that you’d like us to address in future editions of A Word with Beth, just let us know, either in the comments, or by sending an email to the address above.

Just in case you’re wondering, I make very good lemonade, from my grandmother’s recipe, and I have never attempted to make or serve turnip cake. For all I know, turnip cake could well be good!

8 thoughts on “A Word with Beth — About Commas, Part Two”

  1. I can’t tell you how much I love and appreciate this post, Beth! I’m guilty of a couple of points (omitting #4 and adding #6), but #2 is the one that is most egregious to me. LOL!

    On my computer, having no icon works great so far. I will check via the iPhone too.

    1. Commas are such tricky things. They love to crawl in where they’re not wanted.

      Thanks for the report about the icons, and for checking on your iPhone as well!

  2. I am so happy to have found your website via Teresa’s post on twitter. Thank you for all the great information and help. Commas have always been one of my weak points in writing.

    1. I’m glad you found my site, too! (Thanks, Teresa!) And I’m glad you found the post helpful. Hope you’ll come by again, Christine.

  3. I can’t tell you how much time I spent trying to convince my students about #7. That was a really big pet peeve of mine. Every time my critique group meets, we have a comma lesson. There are so many comma rules to remember. Thanks for doing this. You could probably do two or three more posts on this topic.

  4. Great post, Beth! I do like my commas. At times, I use so many, it seems as if I’m throwing a comma party. But inevitably a few will get hangovers and not show up where and when they should. Thank you for helping us keep them in line! 🙂

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