Saturday, August 23, 2014


Ben from Traverse City and someone else whose name I failed to record asked about the proper use of commas. Like it or not, some technical terms must be reckoned with in order to place commas correctly, so let’s start with a quick review.

A phrase is a group of words that does not express a complete thought because the unit does not have its own subject and its own verb:
  • ·      in the beginning
  •     looking for a bench to sit on
  •      a woman on a mission

A clause is a group of words that does have its own subject and verb, but there are two kinds -- one that is complete in itself (independent), and one that is limited (dependent) and must always be attached to an independent clause, thus forming a longer and more complicated sentence.

(1) An independent clause expresses a complete thought; nothing prevents it from being called a sentence.
  • ·      My dog’s name is Boo.
  •     My daughter is singing in a school musical tonight.
  •     Don’t forget to read Chapter 14 by Monday.

Two independent clauses may be joined into one by using coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, nor, so, yet, for.
  • ·      My dog’s name is Boo, and my cat’s name is Bodacious.
  •      My daughter is singing in a school musical tonight, so I won’t be home until late.
  •     Don’t forget to read Chapter 14 by Monday, or you may fail the quiz.

(2) A dependent clause does not express a complete thought because it is bound by a subordinating conjunction. Examples of subordinating conjunctions include because, while, although, as soon as, wherever. They always begin the dependent clause.
  • ·      Whenever I get a headache, I reach for the medicine cabinet.
  •      I’m limping because I sprained my ankle during a basketball game.
  •     As soon as dinner is ready, I’ll let you know.

Keeping all that in mind, here are some comma rules that will serve you well.

√ When two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, use a comma right in front of that conjunction.
·      She wanted to take that class, but her job interfered.
·      Tom writes the words, and Harriet writes the music.
·      Handle that knife carefully, or you will cut yourself.

√ Use a comma between words, phrases, and clauses in a series of three or more items. This is called the series rule.
·      I have lived in California, Iowa, Texas, and New Jersey
·      We looked in the attic, in the basement, and in the garage.
·      Michael made dinner, washed the dishes, put the baby to bed, did his homework, and then watched the game on TV.
In other words, when you have three or more items in your series, use one comma less than the number of items.

√ When a dependent clause or a phrase or a transitional word begins a sentence, use a comma right after it.
·      If a worker is always on time, his or her supervisor will notice.
·      At the end of the movie, the lights came on.    
·      However, he did not have enough money to buy the leather chair.                
Note:  A transitional word connects something that was said earlier with what is about to be said.  A few examples are furthermore, however, therefore, first, next, finally, later, and meanwhile.

√ Use two commas to set apart an interrupting word or word group inside a sentence. An interrupter is a word, a phrase, or a dependent clause that is added to give extra information. Such information could be left out without seriously changing the meaning of the main part of the sentence. Commas help make it obvious that it is extra information.
·      Your mother, furthermore, is sympathetic. [transitional word]
·      The pizza, if anyone cares, has anchovies on it. [dependent clause]
·      Her arm, not her leg, is in a cast. [phrase]
·      Our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, is well known. [proper noun]
·      She studied Chapter 5, which discusses computers. [dependent clause]
·      Thomas Edison, who invented the light bulb, had a serious reading problem. [dependent clause]                                                                     
If you were to remove the underlined words in the preceding examples, the main ideas would still be clear. The sentences would still give the reader an exact identification of the topic under discussion. The underlined words give useful information, but they are not necessary. This type of interrupter is called nonrestrictive, and it needs to be enclosed by commas.       

√ However, if a word or word group is needed to tell exactly which one, do not enclose it in commas.  Since the information is necessary to identify a person, place, or thing, you don’t want to minimize it or separate it. It is called restrictive.
·      She studied the chapter that discusses computers.
·      The person who invented the light bulb had a serious reading problem.
·      My sister who lives in Seattle calls me more often than my sister who lives just a few miles from me.

Leave the the underlined words out, and you have lost identification.  Don’t make them appear extraneous by enclosing them in commas.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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