It’s commas time again, dear readers! Of all the subjects I get comments on, this one is tops. Most folks admit to using way more commas than they think they should, but I’m guessing it’s just because they don’t know some of the basic rules.
Back in July I wrote about three rules for using commas (Direct Address, Items in a Series, and the Oxford comma), and you can see that below.
American Grammar Checkup, July 20: Commas Count!
While it’s possible to find dozens of rules for using any punctuation mark, there are usually just a few that really matter for basic business writing, including blog posts.
When all else fails, either remember the words in the picture above, or use the KISS Principle: Keep It Short and Simple.
So relax and learn! (And yes — the sign on the left caught my eye in BWI Airport due to its poor use of English.
Grammatically, it should be either “Relax” or “Be Relaxed.”) On the other hand, maybe it’s deliberate to get our attention. It certainly got mine, although I don’t know if I could have relaxed…
Now, fasten your safety belts, because this is going to get bumpy. These two rules below are hard enough to describe when I’m in a classroom setting; I can only hope I’m doing a decent job here with this blog.
Here are two more useful rules — not that you’ll be thrilled with them — and please remember: these are AMERICAN grammar rules. I know I have a worldwide readership, but all I can do is give you what I know in the American system. I hope that you will check to see if what I mention is what your own country’s grammar system agrees with.
Essential vs. Nonessential Information
Essential information is required to make complete sense of a sentence; it is often used to help a reader identify one among many.
Never enclose / set off essential information with any punctuation mark.
Nonessential information can be left out of a sentence without major loss of understanding because it often describes a single item that is easy to identify.Writers often add it for extra interest or information, but it’s not essential.
Always enclose / set off nonessential information with some mark of punctuation — commas, parentheses, or dashes.
An easy way to decide if your information is essential or nonessential is to imagine placing it inside parentheses, which are often easier to understand than any other mark. If you think about it, you’ll realize you often use those ( ) to give your reader additional stuff that isn’t totally necessary. Right? So if your information belongs inside them, it’s not essential (it may be interesting or useful, but not essential). Replace each half of the parentheses with a comma or dash (one for one).
Examples of Essential Information
1. The board meeting that was held Monday was too long.
(If there was more than one meeting, the phrase “that was held Monday” is essential to specify which meeting was too long.)
2. The copier on the third floor is broken.
(If there are at least two copiers in the building, it’s critical / essential to identify which one is broken. You don’t want some poor repair person trying to find the one copier among many that isn’t working, right?)
Examples of Nonessential Information
1. The board meeting (which was held Monday) was too long.
2. The board meeting, which was held Monday, was too long.
3. The board meeting — which was held Monday — was too long.
(If there was only one board meeting held recently, why describe it? Everyone will know which one you mean. Therefore the description must be extra and not essential. The sentence could have been written “The board meeting was too long.”)
Which, that, or who? We use which to introduce nonessential information, that to introduce essential information, and who to introduce either type.
Are you with me so far?
Words that explain what came directly before, which are considered nonessential. And you can test yourself as shown above by seeing if that information could go inside parentheses, which always enclose nonessential information. If you could use ( ), you need TWO commas or two dashes, one for each half of the ( ).
1. Jane Smith, the board chair, will be at the meeting.
2. Jane Smith (the board chair) will be at the meeting.
3. Jane Smith — the board chair — will be at the meeting.
(The real sentence is Jane Smith will be at the meeting. While the board chair gives further information about her, it’s not essential for sentence clarity. Does it help to know who she is? Probably. But again, it’s not essential information. No matter who Jane Smith is, she’ll still be at the meeting.)
1. The board chair, Jane Smith, will be at the meeting.
2. The board chair (Jane Smith) will be at the meeting.
3. The board chair — Jane Smith — will be at the meeting.
(Here the appositive is the name Jane Smith. I’m sure you can see that you don’t actually need her name to have a perfectly fine sentence. But names are good to have, so use it and surround it with appropriate marks of punctuation.)
BUT: Board Chair Jane Smith will be at the meeting.
Bonus points if you know why the sentence above is punctuated correctly with no commas, before reading the explanation below.
Explanation: In the first sentences, “the board chair” is being used as Jane Smith’s occupation. In the one after “BUT,” it’s being used as her title.
How can you tell? It’s the article “the,” which is used to indicate an occupation. We don’t use “the,” “a,” or “an,” or any other descriptive term in front a title.
We do not separate a title and name when the title comes first, no matter how many words the title has.
In terms of titles and names, it’s easy if we connect the rule above to common usage. We would always write “Mr. John Smith,” right? Well, “Mr.” is the title, and hardly anyone would put a comma after it. So no matter what kind of a title someone has — no matter how many words there are in the title — if it comes first, we do NOT put a comma between it and the following name.
CEO and Founder Mark Smith spoke to the employees today.
Our CEO and Founder, Mark Smith, spoke to the employees today.
Yes, these two rules are tough to explain in a blog post, and they are often the rules we spend the most time on in my “Brush Up on Your American Grammar Skills” workshop. I think you can see why.
If you want a free copy of the workbook in a pdf format, send me an email.