Commas! I can’t think of anything more fun than talking about commas first thing Monday morning! Can you?
Oh. OK. You can. But still. They’re important. (And yes. I’m a sick woman.)
Misusing them can change the meaning of a sentence, not for all readers, probably, but for enough that we as writers might not be taken seriously.
One of them is known as the Direct Address comma, and it’s used when we’re writing to someone directly and using either their name or their title in the sentence. And while longtime followers know that I love humor, I don’t like readers laughing when I wasn’t making a joke.
One of the most famous memes on the internet addresses this topic with humor, and it’s shown at the top of the article here. Yes, there’s a real difference between those two sentences, right?
Others I have seen on the same topic include:
NO: Let’s cut and paste kids.
YES: Let’s cut and paste, kids.
NO: Thank you for sharing Susan.
YES: Thank you for sharing, Susan
Then there’s the famous Oxford comma (the one that comes before and or or in a series) that I wish everyone would get in the habit of using to save themselves from miswriting the one sentence that absolutely needs it so that readers won’t laugh when it wasn’t meant to be funny.
The top part of this picture says someone is thanking their parents AND Ayn Rand AND God. Three separate, individual sets of beings. That’s what using two commas there does for the sentence.
The bottom part says someone’s parents are Ayn Rand and God. Yes. That is absolutely what it says. Without the second comma, the last two items in a series are seen as a unit.
The third point below is worth mentioning because I just copyedited a delightful book whose author has never met a comma he didn’t love (or a semicolon, either, but that’s another story).
Many sentences had a comma between the subject of the sentence and the verb, which is a no-no when it’s the only comma in the sentence.
Rule: Never separate the subject and the predicate of a sentence with just one comma.
FYI: The subject is what the sentence is about; the predicate is the verb and all the rest of the words that are not the subject.
1. Simple example: John, went outside. Now to most of us, that looks wrong and it is wrong. But even when the subject has more words, we still do NOT use a single comma between the subject and the predicate. The trick here is identifying what the subject is.
2. Tough example: New friends John and Sally Smith from our wonderful condo neighborhood, went to the movies with us. Just because the subject is long and full of words doesn’t make it different from a one-word subject.
3. Perfectly fine examples:
Our new friends, John and Sally Smith from our wonderful condo neighborhood, went to the movies with us.
Our new friends (John and Sally Smith from our wonderful condo neighborhood) went to the movies with us.
John and Sally Smith, our new friends from our wonderful condo neighborhood, went to the movies with us.
In the #3 examples, there are either TWO commas enclosing a nonessential phrase (one that could be left out of the sentence) or parentheses. The commas are being used in place of parentheses, which are so large we should use them sparingly. And we need both commas because parentheses have an opening part and a closing part; using commas in their place means putting a comma where each half of the parentheses would be.
Are American punctuation rules odd? Yes, some of them absolutely are. But I’m guessing every language has its odd rules, ones that we’re supposed to follow that don’t make much sense.
Does this article help you use commas more easily and correctly? Do you have more questions? I welcome your thoughts on this or any other American punctuation, usage, or vocabulary rule that is bugging you. You may also find some help on my website; just type commas into the search box.