Letter from a Comma

Dear Students,

Some of you might have noticed that I am a rather complicated punctuation mark. There are some hard fast rules for my use but some other times using me may seem completely random. You’ve heard terms like “phrase” (a group of words that does not contain both a subject and a verb) and “clause” (a group of words that contain both a subject and a verb, but not necessarily a complete thought). You’ve probably also learned to use me in some situations but not others. Yeah, commas are complicated. But Connie Comma is here to help! Let me see if I can clarify some of my convoluted rules. (By the way, did you see the places I was missing in this paragraph?)

Sadly, I’m not a very strong punctuation mark. I’m flattered that many of you think that I’m strong enough to hold together two complete sentences, but I can only make so many trips to the gym. Check out this sentence: The dog barked at the mailman, but the mailman did not pay attention. See how I’m used? My close buddies, the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, have to help me hold these big sentences together. Some of you make the opposite mistake and flatter the conjunctions in these situations, forgetting all about me! Always remember that both of us are needed to connect compound sentences.

Oh! I have also seen many of you excluding me from lists in one way or another. I must follow every word in a list, except the last word. For example, when I go to the store, I buy bread, ham, and cheese. When I cook soup, I add chicken, noodles, and salt to the broth. Do you see where I stand in these two lists? Some of you make lists like this: trees, bushes, and leaves. That is a list of only two things: Trees then bushes and leaves. In that situation, bushes and leaves are one item in the list because I was not included after bushes. When I separate the second-to-last and last items in a list, I am called an Oxford Comma, and I am always used in academic writing.

When you connect a dependent clause to an independent clause, you need to include me at the end of the dependent clause, such as is done at the beginning of this sentence. When I am not included the sentence just keeps going on and on and the meaning of the sentence becomes confusing (just as this sentence does because I wasn’t placed after the word “included”).  Also, with phrases that begin sentences, I am needed, just as this sentence demonstrates. In other words, every time an introductory phrase or clause is used, I should follow it!

Here are some nerdy terms for ya: appositive phrases, restrictive and non-restrictive modifiers, expressions of contrast, and direct address. All of these are situations in which I am needed. Those first two, appositives and modifiers, are basically glorified adjectives. For example, Connie (aka lil ol’ me), who is a comma, is going to help you understand when to use commas in these situations. In that sentence, the phrase “who is a comma” is a non-restrictive modifier; in other words, the sentence would have made sense without it. In these situations, my necessity can be determined by how essential that part of the sentence is to the rest of the sentence. If that sentence would not have made sense without the “who is a comma,” then I would not have been needed. For example, the teacher who has the mohawk gave me an A. In this sentence, if “who has the mohawk” was not included, it would be unclear who I was talking about. Therefore, I am not needed.

In expressions of contrast, however, I am always needed (just as with the “however” in this sentence). If a part of the sentence communicates what something is not, I should be there. Ants, although small in stature, are exceptionally strong. The “although” phrase does not communicate the same idea as the rest of the sentence; rather, it gives a side piece of information.

Someone once said, “All great things must come to an end.” This letter, I am afraid, must conclude soon. Just a couple more tips, and we will be finished. When direct quotes are used, I am needed with phrases that come before or after the quotes, such as the case in the first sentence of this paragraph. “There are too many comma rules,” exclaimed the harried English student. And don’t forget, if the phrase comes after the quote, the comma always goes inside the quotation marks (as seen in the example above).

States and dates: that’s the last thing we have to talk about. When incorporating cities and states into sentences, remember that I always follow the cities and states, unless the state ends the sentence. Check out this example: I went on a road trip from Dallas, Texas, to Ouachita, Arkansas. Notice a comma follows Texas, but not Arkansas because of its location in the sentence.

A similar rule applies to dates: commas always follow the day and the year, unless the year ends the sentence. For example, the car was bought on January 31st, 2010, and tuned up January 1st, 2013. Notice the comma after 2010, but not after 2013.

I hope you now better understand how to incorporate me into your academic and personal writing. I know I’m complicated and convoluted, but I make your writing so much clearer! If you have any questions or need clarification, just visit the DBU Writing Center. There are qualified, certified consultants there that know all about me!

Written by Michelle

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