Don Massenzio shares more on how to detect and punctuate essential and nonessential modifiers. This post from the Ediket blog provides some great practice examples! Check them out.
Category Archives: punctuation
Commas are among my favorite tools for building meaning. Used intelligently, commas are wonderful signposts that tell readers which part of a sentence they’ve stumbled into—and then help them make their way out again. I like commas so much I’ve written multiple posts about them.
If comma rules confuse you, take heart! If improving reader comprehension is your goal, there are really only a few “rules” to remember:
Rule 1: After introductory elements.
This is the one most people seem to know about. But I argue that commas are really only necessary when the introductory element gets long enough that readers may miss the lane change back into the main part of the sentence.
After a moment he left the room. (No comma needed unless you want to emphasize a pause.)
After he spent an extended vacation in a remote village in the Alps, where did he go next? (The comma lets readers know that “where” begins a new clause.)
Rule 2: Around or after “interrupters,” including non-essential modifiers (this is a rule, not an option).
I think this one is the most confusing for many writers.
Short interrupters can be easy to spot:
Jane, however, did not go with him to the Alps.
However, Jane did not go.
Non-essential modifiers are elements that can be lifted out of the sentence without compromising its meaning or purpose.
The old car, which was a lot like the one my grandfather used to drive, had been repainted bright blue.
The information about grandad’s car is incidental to the meaning of the sentence, which is that the car is now bright blue. Lift it out and only this incidental information is lost. The rule here, and it IS a rule, is TWO COMMAS, not just the first one. You need that second comma to signal the return to the main clause.
Contrast the example above with this example of an essential modifier, one that can’t be lifted out without eliminating the point of the sentence:
The car that gives you the most mileage is the one you should buy.
Without the modifier, we have:
The car is the one you should buy.
Since the point of the sentence is to say which car, the modifier is essential to the meaning.
NO COMMAS around essential modifiers! They are integral to the sentence, not “interrupters.”
Sometimes confusion about what constitutes an essential or non-essential modifier can turn a sentence into nonsense. I often see commas inserted into constructions like this.
Author Stephen King wrote a lot of books.
Note: no commas. Now try it without the essential modifier, in this case an appositive:
Author wrote a lot of books.
The trick: try taking out the modifying clause and see what remains.
Rule 3: Direct address (this is also a rule, not an option):
Hi, Mr. Smith.
Did you buy bread at the store, Louise?
Louise, did you buy the bread?
Well, Mr. Smith, I guess we won’t be having any bread today.
Rule 4: Before “and,” “but,” etc., if you have more than two items. (This is the infamous Oxford or serial comma.) The elements of the “serial” or list can be words, phrases, or whole sentences.
Louise forgot the bread, cheese, and fruit; she did remember the wine, beer, and vodka.
My worries about her diet involved her lack of protein, her lack of vegetables, and her preference for liquid components.
If you have only two items linked by “and” or “but,” you have a compound and don’t need a comma, as in this sentence, which contains a compound predicate for the pronoun “you.” I’ve underlined the two components (and note the comma after the introductory clause).
Rule 5: Before the “and” or “but” if you’re joining two complete sentences.
I’d argue this is a judgment call, but this sentence illustrates how judicious use of a comma in a compound sentence like this one can tell readers which part of the sentence they’ve ventured into.
That’s five “rules” to absorb—not really so many. Rule Number Six: if one of those five rules doesn’t apply, DON’T INSERT A COMMA. No commas between subjects and their verbs, no commas after “and” or “but,” and so forth. List the five rules and check your questionable comma to see whether one of these applies*:
- After introductory elements
- Around interrupters
- In direct address
- Before “and” or “but” in a list of three or more items
- Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**).
*There are some “conventional” rules for commas that don’t really affect readers’ comprehension, such as the comma that should follow the name of a state (“Austin, Texas, was his home.”) or the ones before and after the year in dates. Any handbook will answer your questions about those minor comma uses.
**There are actually several coordinating conjunctions in addition to “and” and “but,” and the rule applies to them as well, but I didn’t want to muddy the waters too much. The other coordinating conjunctions you’re likely to use include “for,” “nor,” “or,” “yet,” and “so.”
What comma rule confuses you most? How do you decide when to include one? Share you solutions with us all!
Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing is back with a post about a punctuation “rule” most of us probably aren’t even aware of—even though we sort of know how to apply it. It’s fun to play around with what “sounds right” to native speakers and speculate as to why.
I’ve argued that you really need only five comma rules to use commas “correctly,” but as Susan points out, commas have other roles, such as controlling emphasis. Commas are strategic tools for writers.
Can you have too many? Absolutely, if they’re inserted where their only role is to interrupt your text. Actually, if you can apply my five rules, you’ll never be “wrong.” Hardest to apply? I’d argue that it can be tricky for some of us to recognize when an element like a non-essential modifier begins and ends.
So what are the comma dilemmas that drive you nuts? Let me know!
Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.
Courtesy ofAdirondack Editing
Adjectives – and the Commas That Go With Them…
So, you’re merrily typing along and your character wants to put on a blue, silk, handmade scarf. Oh, wait a minute. Is that a silk, blue, handmade scarf or a handmade, silk, blue scarf? A blue, handmade, silk scarf? Oh dear!
Aha! Super Editor to the rescue!
(Imagine me swooping over your house and flying in your window, red pen in hand!)
(Ok, now imagine me 10 pounds lighter. Another ten. Ok, that’s better.)
Adjective order in English is not completely random, although what we’re going to discuss are more along the lines of guidelines rather than rules. The exception is when you’re speaking of words of general description along with words…
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Hi! Back from an extended adventure. I’ve missed being part of the blogging community.
Below, I’ve shared the first of a really, really comprehensive set of rules about using commas from over at the Story Empire Blog.
I personally love commas; they control emphasis and sentence rhythm and serve as simple traffic signs to tell readers which part of a sentence they’re currently in and when they are changing directions. I’ve posted a bunch about commas on this blog because I love them so much (for example, in “What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?”
My own experience teaching college writing for 25 years led me to believe that reducing the number of “rules” people have to remember is better than trying to explain everything in great detail. Rules tend to make our eyes glaze over.
So, in What’s your favorite punctuation mark? And the one you hate?, I reduced the number of “rules” to five, noting that in some cases, even applying the rule is a judgment call (e.g., note the missing comma after “post” in this sentence and the use of one after “cases”). My five rules for when commas are needed are:
- After introductory elements (usually)
- Around interrupters (including nonessential modifiers; always)
- In direct address (always)
- Before “and” or “but” (and other coordinating conjunctions) in a list of hree or more items (Long live the Oxford comma!)
- Before the “and” or “but” in a compound sentence (two complete sentences joined with a coordinating conjunction like “and” or “but”**). (usually)
I note that if you think you might need a comma and it doesn’t fit one of these categories, don’t insert it. Observance of that caution will eliminate a lot of commas between nouns and their verbs!
Stroll over to Story Empire to check out Parts I and II of this post on this most useful and most misunderstood punctuation mark!
Hello SErs! Harmony here 🙂 I hope this finds you all well. Today, I’d like to take a look at commas. For such a small punctuation mark, it has a big impact on how well or not our sentences read. Though we use commas a lot of the time, few of us understand them fully.
What is a comma? What does it do?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘A comma marks a slight break between different parts of a sentence. Used properly, commas make the meaning of sentences clear by grouping and separating words, phrases, and clauses.’
The different types of comma: Listing (Standard or Oxford), Introductory, Joining, Gapping, Bracketing, and other comma uses.
One thing that can make commas so confusing is that sometimes you have options, especially with the Listing and Gapping commas.
Because there is a lot to cover on this topic, I have split it…
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This lively post by Aliette de Bodard at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog not only defends semicolons but also encourages us to learn to use them well. My take: I’m an enemy of rigid rules, period. That said, there are some conventions writers really need to know, such as how to punctuate dialogue so it’s clear when it begins and ends. Readers get used to some of these conventions, and get jerked out of the story when their expectations are not met.
So whether to break a rule can really be a judgment call. Definitely: you best serve your prose if you know the rule, and the consequences of breaking it.
And by the way, I’ve been reading an awful lot of wonderful books that are unself-consciously replete with adverbs. I think I’m going to go back to some of my stripped-down paragraphs and slip those adverbs back in. Judiciously, of course. And in the dark of night.
Fortunately for me, the members of both of the writing groups I belong to don’t traffic in most of these pointless prescriptions and proscriptions. I do, however, agree that too many people have a basic fear of the word “was.” As Allen points out, there’s a big difference between “I was reading when she came in” and “I read when she came in.” Also “had.” Sometimes the past perfect is just necessary. Do you have any “stupid rules” to add, or do you take exception to Allen’s judgment on these?
I love Anne R. Allen’s blog. I learn something new every time I visit. This is an excellent piece about bad writing advice. Check it out. Just click on the highlighted link below. ❤
Stupid Writing Rules: 12 dumb things new writers tell each other. Ignore this bad advice from misinformed people in critique groups.
Here’s a great piece from Sue Vincent that echoes what I’ve often thought about those mechanical editing programs that try to lure us into their World of Rules.
I will add to this: The darn programs are all too often just plain wrong! Can’t tell you how many sentences Word’s editor labeled fragments, and how many actual fragments it missed! And any time a mechanical “editor” gives you a piece of advice about punctuation, check the editor’s rule against at least a couple of standard handbooks before kowtowing to some dictator’s orders.
I can’t say enough for real readers. Okay, so they, too, are sometimes “wrong.” Or wrong-headed. But a) they can and usually do explain why they reacted a certain way to something you wrote, and b) they respond to the very things the robots and aliens discussed in this article glide right past—the emotion, the rhythm, the energy, the joy.
Don’t pore over some grammar or editing site. Join a writers’ group!
From the archives – May 2015:
I was curious. Being a writer, I keep seeing articles about the editing software available online to help writers and, over coffee, I thought I would have a quick look. I browsed a number of them, duly pasting a chunk of text into their little blank boxes to see what they had to offer.
After five minutes, my blood was boiling.
Writers, it seems, are being encouraged to use these programmes. Not, as I mistakenly supposed, in order to check their grammar, spelling and punctuation… say, as an extension to spellcheck or as a different perspective on work we are too fond of, and too involved with, to see clearly. No. We are being encouraged to use them in order to erase our personal voice.
Okay, I know… that probably isn’t entirely fair.
There are those who swear by their usefulness, though these, I…
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