English Grammar


by Eugene R. Moutoux

The comma: 

1. What do you think of email salutations like Hi Jerry, and Hi friend? Does anything about them bother your punctuation conscience? Well, something should, because commas have traditionally been used to set off nouns of direct address; in other words, there should be a comma before Jerry and a comma before friend. O well, you say, and I tend to agree. We may just have to accept this email usage as a fait accompli; nevertheless, in general, use commas before (if possible) and after (if possible) direct address, as follows:

- Brian, what do you think?

- Well, Isabel, I donít know.

- Draw me a picture, Katie.

2. Commas are used to set off the individual parts of addresses: He lives at 1206 Pheasant Ridge, Goshen, Kentucky, and works at a sporting goods store. If the zip code is included, put a comma after the zip code but not after the name of the state: He lives at 1206 Pheasant Ridge, Goshen, Kentucky 40026, and works at a sporting goods store.

3. With dates, put a comma after both the day and the year if you use the following form: Their first child was born on May 2, 1906, in Mt. Vernon, Indiana. Use no comma at all if you use this form: Their first child was born on 2 May 1906 in Mt. Vernon, Indiana.

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4. Now letís examine the use of the comma with coordinating conjunctions. As you may know, the principal coordinating conjunctions are and, or, but, and nor.

In compound sentences, put a comma before the coordinating conjunction joining clauses. In short compound sentences, this comma may usually be omitted. Examples: They arrived at the airport two hours before scheduled departure, but their flight had been canceled. They arrived on time but their friends were late. Donít omit the comma, however, if the omission could cause the reader to stumble: They saw Bill and Betty appeared soon (a comma before and would make the sentence easier to read).

You probably know that the elements of a series are separated from each other by commas. But what do you think of the Oxford comma? "The what?" you say. The Oxford (Harvard, serial) comma is the comma situated before the and or the or joining the last two elements of a series. The question here is whether one should use this comma. And the short answer, for Americans, is yes. American writers (journalists excluded) tend to use it, whereas the British do not. There are good arguments on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who oppose the use of the Oxford comma maintain that commas in a series merely represent missing ands and ors; according to them, since the final and or or is expressed, the comma before it should be omitted. Advocates of the Oxford comma point out that using it can prevent ambiguity, which is true. Here is an example: Bids were submitted by the firms of Smith and Johnson, Peterson and Allen and Edwards. Are the names of the last two firms (1) Peterson and (2) Allen and Edwards or (3) Peterson and Allen and (4) Edwards? The Oxford comma would clear things up. Bids were submitted by the firms of Smith and Johnson, Peterson, and Allen and Edwards is consistent with appellations 1 and 2, while Bids were submitted by the firms of Smith and Johnson, Peterson and Allen, and Smith gives us 3 and 4. Okay, say the opponents of the controversial comma, use it only when needed to avoid ambiguity. For better or for worse, most of us in the United States are stuck with the Oxford comma.

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5. When two or more attributive adjectives precede the same noun, a comma or commas are sometimes used to separate them from each other. The rule is this: A comma is needed between two attributive adjectives if they could be joined by and. For example, and could be used to join old and empty in the sentence An old, empty house stood on the corner; therefore, a comma is placed between the two adjectives. On the other hand, in the sentence Our school offers an unusual academic environment, and could not be placed logically between unusual and academic; therefore, no comma should be used. In the first sentence, the two adjectives modify house independently, whereas in the second sentence unusual modifies the noun phrase academic environment. Unfortunately, Reed & Kellogg diagramming (the kind of diagramming you are learning at this website) does not do a perfect job of showing the modification of attributive adjectives that modify noun phrases .

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6. Commas in a nutshell:

a. (except in very short sentences) before coordinating conjunctions when they separate independent clauses: Hard Spun led for more than a mile, but Street Sense passed him in the stretch.

b. after an introductory adverbial clause: Because cancer research is expensive and necessary, it behooves those of us who can to give generously.

c. between items of a series of three or more items (unless one or more of the items contains commas): Breakfast included cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice, coffee.

d. before a conjunction joining the last two elements of a series: They spent most of their money on gasoline, lodging, and food  (the Oxford comma).

e. after introductory participial phrases: Expecting rain, the picnickers brought raincoats and umbrellas.

f. to set off interjections, transitional adverbs, parenthetical elements, and nouns of direct address: Hey, that hurts! Jacob, however, wore a tux. Our team lost, to tell the truth, to a better team. I wonder, Jay, if you have time to help me.

g. to set off that is, namely, i.e., for example, and e.g. when these expressions introduce words or phrases: In his opinion, this country would be better off without one divisive attitude, namely, stubborn certitude.

h. to set off nonrestrictive relative clauses: Albert Einstein, who accomplished so much in his younger years, searched in vain in his later years for a theory that would unite relativity and quantum mechanics.

i. to set off nonrestrictive appositives: Her best friend, Jennifer Collins, could not attend.

j. between coordinate attributive adjectives: The train moved slowly through a long, dark tunnel.

k. to set off et cetera, etc., and so on, and and so forth: They were burning grass, leaves, sticks, paper, etc., without a permit.

l. to set off certain antithetical phrases and clauses: The more they work, the less they complain. He needed a pat on the shoulder, not a kick in the rear.

m. to separate two or more phrases that find completion in the same word or phrase: Defense lawyers can, and sometimes do, help guilty clients avoid punishment. She prefers to hint at, rather than hit her readers over the head with, matters she considers important.

n. to set off individual elements of place names and of addresses (but not between the state and the zip code): Ed sent the letter to 750 Bennighof Avenue, Evansville, IN 42214, without knowing if that was the correct address.

o. to set off quotations used as direct objects and quotations used as nonrestrictive appositives (but not quotations used as subjects, predicate nominatives, objects of prepositions, or restrictive appositives): He yelled, "Charlotte, bring me a pencil." "I canít," she replied. His exact words were "Charlotte, bring me a pencil." If a quotation ends in a question mark or an exclamation mark, no comma is used after it: "Why do you need a pencil?" she asked.

p. as necessary for ease of reading or to prevent a misreading: For those who enjoy baking, ham and fish are good choices. For those who enjoy baking ham and fish, this magazine has just the right recipes.

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Other punctuation:

7. Use semicolons to separate comma-laden elements of a series.

Here are two examples:

- Troloppe, an Englishman; Flaubert, a Frenchman; Lessing, a German; and Gogal, a Russian, all arrive at the Pearly Gates at the same time.

- She wondered when the media-mail package, which had been shipped two weeks earlier, would arrive; why Professor Bates, who had prepared the package, hadnít sent it first class; and how she would finish her thesis in time for spring graduation.

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8. Direct statements after verbs of saying and direct questions after verbs of asking are noun clauses enclosed by quotation marks. In the United States, periods and commas are placed inside closing quotation marks, like this:

- She said, "I would like to see that movie sometime."

- "I would like to see it, too," he replied.

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9. Question marks are placed inside closing quotation marks if the quotation is a question. If the sentence is a question but the quotation is not, the question mark follows the closing quotation marks. Examples:

- He asked, "Do you want to see the movie with me?"

- Did she really say, "Iíll have to think about it"?

- Did he ask, "How much time will you need?"

Other important uses of quotation marks are these:

- for the titles of articles in books, newspapers, and magazines

- for the titles of essays and short stories

- for chapter titles

- for the titles of short poems

- for the titles of radio and TV episodes

- for the titles of songs

- for words used ironically: The first graders finished their "dissertations" and ran out to play.

- for slang words that are not an ordinary part of the writerís vocabulary: He sprinted across the meadow, avoiding as many "cow pies" as he could.

Unless they appear as offset blocks, quotations of multiple paragraphs or stanzas from a single source require quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph or stanza as well as quotation marks at the end of the final paragraph or stanza.

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10. The semicolon is a useful punctuation mark; many people who know how to use it correctly love it. I am one of them. Semicolons are placed as follows:

- between separate clauses in a compound sentence when the clauses themselves include commas: A good friend of mine, Bruce Barnstable, lives in the house on the corner; his dentist, Dr. Gutmann, lives next to him; and a mutual friend, Ellen Lane, lives just around the corner.

- between two independent clauses of a compound sentence when the clauses are not connected by a conjunction: Detective Brown arrived early; to his amazement, the tall blonde was waiting for him.

- before transitional adverbs like however, therefore, moreover, besides, then, thus, and indeed when these words are used between independent clauses of the same sentence: I donít know the answer; moreover, I donít care. When similarly positioned, yet and so are preceded by a comma.

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- from the teacher's enlarged edition of my book Diagramming Step by Step: One Hundred and Fifty-one Steps to Diagramming Excellence

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