This is part of a series about the humble comma, and summarizes some of the thirty-something uses for it that I haven’t covered in previous articles.
The comma is used to indicate a structural break in a sentence. It can indicate connection with or separation of elements one from another. When reading out loud, it indicates where a slight pause should occur. It is the punctuation mark that indicates the shortest of pauses.
In many situations, the placement of commas is a matter of subjectivity and style—however, the overall goal is always to promote ease and accuracy of comprehension, as well as to respect those rules of punctuation for the comma that are hard and fast.
Commas are frequently used to separate a single (usually qualifying) element.
The subway in London, England, is called The Underground.
If the sentence continues beyond the element being separated, the second comma is required.
A parenthetical phrase is one that adds non-essential information to the sentence. It may be parenthesised with commas, em dashes, or parentheses (aka round brackets)
When using commas in such situations, you need to use a pair.
The Underground, the subway system in London, is a very efficient way of travelling in the UK capital.
Introductions (and Outros) to Quotations
Quotations—including direct speech—when introduced by a phrase, are separated from that introductory phrase by a comma.
Edmund said to his servant, “Get the door.”
Any period that terminates direct speech at other than the end of the encompassing sentence should be replaced by a comma.
“Get the door,” said Edmund.
Implied Words and Phrases
A comma may be used in places where words or phrases are implied but omitted.
In the name “Okotoks”, there are seven letters; in “Edmonton”, eight; in “Banff”, five; in “Minnewanka”, ten.
They needn’t be used if the meaning is clear without them. In the following example, the implied-but-omitted phrase is “pawn was threatened”; the commas separate the instances.
One pawn was threatened by the Queen, one by the King’s Bishop, and one by the Queen’s Rook.
Commas in Names
The issue here is what to do when someone has a qualifier as part of their name, such as David Bleasdale Junior or Pope Francis the third.
David Bleasdale Jr., not David Bleasdale, Jr.
Pope Francis III, not Pope Francis, III
However, when you invert the person’s name (to put in an index, for example), a comma is required.
Bleasdale, David, Jr.
Without the comma, we might be led to think that the person’s name is David Junior Bleasdale.
Notwithstanding the above, clerical titles stay as a prefix to the person’s first name.
Roxborough, Rev. James not Roxborough, James, Rev.
As for the inversion of the Pope’s name in an index; popes are treated like kings (and queens).
Francis III (pope)
Elizabeth VII (queen)
Commas and Style
As with so many things in the Arts (and writing is an art, not a science), style and subjectivity play a part. Charles Dickens, for example, knew every single use of the comma, and by jiminy, took every opportunity, using commas like they were going out of fashion. And it seems that they were, because today’s writers use fewer.
The legal profession tends to avoid them, preferring to make their meaning clear and unambiguous by using ridiculously long sentences.
Lynn Truss, in her book Eats Shoots and Leaves (the title itself having been inspired by a joke made possible by the placement of a redundant comma), cites one other important rule: “Don’t use commas like a stupid person.” Style never trumps comprehension or precision. Her book, and specifically the chapter entitled “That’ll Do, Comma”, is a wonderfully easy-to-understand guide to how to use the comma. Her examples are clear and entertaining, and it was only after I drafted this article that I consulted her book and realized that it should have been my starting point for organizing my own thoughts!
The Long and Short
There are many, many uses of the comma, and my series of articles is not exhaustive. The Chicago Manual of Style uses qualifying phrases such as “often used” and “traditionally used”, and cites a large number of exceptions in its thirty-eight sections on the comma. It is not an easy read.
I’m going to relax with a beverage and Eats Shoot and Leaves, and depending on my findings, might rewrite this article!
Please Help Improve Yonder Pedant’s Ramblings
- Did I miss a typo? (I’ll feel bad when you tell me, but I’d rather you did tell me!)
- Did I write something that makes you want to turn green and burst out of your shirt?
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If so, please let me know by leaving a comment.