Punctuation Series: Pauses Part 1—Commas
Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
Pauses are as critical to writing as silence is to rhythm. Without pauses to lend structure, the reader is standing in front of a firehose-like stream of information. Without pauses, the speaker is left with no room to inhale and ends up flopping on the floor like a landed fish. Pauses create space for the words to stand in.
In standard English punctuation systems, there are four primary pauses. In increasing order of pause length, they are: comma, semi-colon, colon and full stop (in US English: the period). This article will discuss the comma, and the next the semi-colon and colon; the final article in the pauses series will look at the full stop.
The comma is perhaps the most familiar punctuation mark in the English language. Certainly the most frequently used. I've used a whole bunch of them since we started this article and you probably haven't even noticed.
So when do you need a comma? Commas are the shortest pause and it's helpful to think of them as a fraction of a halt in the flow of the text. With this in mind, you can appreciate a lot of the comma's roles.
Commas are primarily used: * to mark a breath pause * to separate items in a list * to join an independent and dependent clause * for parenthetical asides.
Taking a breath
You may have been taught that a comma is a place to take a breath when reading aloud. This certainly isn't a bad piece of advice but it's not perfect either.
If you're reading text aloud, a comma—or any of the pauses, really—is usually a good sign that you've found a place to take a break. Try reading out a comma-containing piece of text without using the pause the comma provides and note how you lose the structure of the sentence (not to mention consciousness).
However, be wary: the inverse doesn't apply. If you have a block of text that's so long it needs a mid-way breath while reading aloud, or if reading aloud leads you to throw in natural pauses to help structure the meaning, those are not necessarily indicators that the written text needs a comma. It's worth your while to learn the ways of the comma and not just sprinkle them about in time with your inhalations.
Racking up bits, pause for thought
Use a comma to break up a list: it gives the reader/listener a chance to add each item to their mental construction of the sentence. Imagine they've got a mental basket and they're adding each item to the list to that basket as you go. Commas give them the space to do so.
For the bagel party, you'll need to bring smoked salmon, asparagus, parsley and bagels.
The list doesn't have to be single units, either. They can be whole concepts:
When they threw me out of the party they said I had soiled the pool, stained the couch and ruined the stereo.
WARNING: DANGEROUS COMMA USE
Now, let's talk controversy. The Oxford comma. If you thought something as tiny as a comma couldn't court controversy, you've not spent enough time on the Internet. The Oxford comma (or the serial comma, or the Harvard comma) is a comma thrown in after the second-last item on the list. So instead of:
Heads, shoulders, knees and toes.
Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes.
This is a matter on which most style guides have an opinion, so for heaven's sake, check before proceeding. Your style guide may have a very explicit stance on the matter, which you need to uphold. I quite like them, myself, although I quite see the argument that the conjunction serves the role of what would be the last comma.
As an amateur rule, non-academic publications in the US usually use it, while non-academic publications in the UK and Australia usually don't, unless its use helps clear up ambiguity and keeps the list tidy. For example, if there are items in your list that include conjunctions within them, an Oxford comma can keep it neat:
Bagel options include green eggs and ham, nuts and crackers, and peanut butter and jam.
Academic and scientific publications everywhere generally include it.
When you're stringing together a long chain of adjectives leading up to a noun, use commas when you've got a few of the same type of adjective. Generally, adjectives are either coordinating (all the same type) or cumulative (all build up and modify the noun in different ways).
Cumulative adjectives can be a bit tricky, but you probably already understand intuitively: you can feel there's a difference between "a fine old wine" and "an old fine wine". The first is an old wine that is fine, the second is a fine wine that is old. Expanding on that, the first implies that there are loads of old wines that aren't fine, and so we need to specify this particular plonk by saying "a fine old wine"; the second implies there are plenty of fine wines on the market, but we're specifically looking for an old one.
On the other hand, if I say "a crunchy, tasty bagel", I'm saying there's a bagel here that has both the qualities of crunchiness and tastiness; I could just as easily say "a tasty, crunchy bagel". Those are coordinating adjectives.
Here's a string of cumulative adjectives describing the wine:
The spoiled fine old red wine splashed onto the carpet.
You can work backwards here and see that the adjectives are progressively modifying the wine. It's a red wine. It's a red wine that is old. It's an old red wine that is fine. It's a fine old red wine that is spoiled. They're accumulating: they're not coordinating; they don't need a comma between them.
The messy, shaggy, wet dog knocked over the wine.
Here's a string of coordinating adjectives. You'll see right away there's commas in there. (Note: no comma between the last adjective and the noun. I shouldn't even need to say it, but let's be clear about this.) You'll also see they're all pretty much equally qualifying the dog: the dog is wet and shaggy and messy. The dog is messy and wet and shaggy. The dog is shaggy and wet and messy. You can put an "and" between each adjective and you end up with the same meaning. You therefore need a comma.
If you're not sure whether your adjective string needs commas, see how it sounds with "and" between each adjective. If "and" sounds sensible (if cluttered), then you've probably got coordinating adjectives and they need commas. If saying "and" sounds a bit awkward (try it on the spoiled fine old red wine example above), then you're working with cumulative adjectives and you don't need commas.
Pauses between clauses
Now, this is the area of comma use that people are most likely to make mistakes, so I'm going to go into a bit of background stuff. That's right: I'm getting linguistic on y'all.
Know your clauses
Clauses are bits of a sentence. Sometimes a sentence is one clause:
I didn't eat your bagels.
Other sentences are made of clauses all joined up in various configurations.
I wouldn't eat your bagels: they're not gluten-free and you know I'm eating gluten-free at the moment.
There's at least three clauses in that example.
Clauses can be dependent or independent. Can your clause stand alone as a sentence? It's independent.
I didn't eat your bagels; they're not gluten-free.
There's two independent clauses: look, you can break that sentence into two sentences and it still makes sense.
I didn't eat your bagels. They're not gluten-free.
If your clause can't stand as a sentence on its own, then you've got a dependent clause right there. For example, if you take the sentence:
I wouldn't eat your bagels with any cheese or any sauce.
And try to break it into two sentences:
I wouldn't eat your bagels. With any cheese or any sauce.
That second sentence doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. You need the first bit (with the bagels and the refusal and all) for the second to be meaningful. That's a dependent clause.
So that's dependent versus independent clauses. That's what we need to talk about here. How you're building your sentence determines whether and where to use a comma.
Dependent + independent
After I threw out the bagels, I locked Jim out.
Here we've got a dependent clause preceding an independent clause. The phrase "After I threw out the bagels" wouldn't make a whole lot of sense as a standalone sentence (generally). But tack an independent clause after it, and you've got a much more sensible sentence. You need that comma.
[Dependent clause] [comma] [Independent clause]
If your dependent clause comes after the independent clause, you don't need a comma at all and I would suggest removing it entirely:
I locked Jim out after I threw out the bagels.
[Independent clause] [nothing] [Dependent clause]
Independent + independent—Here be dragons
The biggest mistake people make with their commas is here: the fateful comma splice. When you tack two independent clauses together, they're not going to tolerate a mere comma. These babies are independent: give them the space they need by using a semi-colon.
I want to sit here, this is the chair closest to the bagels.
You can see straight away that those two clauses could do their own thing as sentences:
I want to sit here. This is the chair closest to the bagels.
So if you want them to hang together in the same sentence, you need to give them a bit more breathing room to stop them getting uppity about their forced collaboration. Two options: a comma plus conjunction, or a semi-colon.
I want to sit here; this is the chair closest to the bagels.
I want to sit here, since this is the chair closest to the bagels.
Choose your weapon:
[Independent clause] [semi-colon] [Independent clause]
[Independent clause] [comma plus conjunction] [Independent clause]
Dependent + dependent
HAH trick question! You're going to need an independent clause eventually, since you can't have a sentence without one. When that happens, use the dependent + independent rules, outlined above.
If your sentence has a bit of bonus information, you may need to set it outside the stream of words to let the audience take it in as a tangent to the main activity of the sentence. Imagine reading the text aloud: you would ordinarily pause to change tone to indicate to the listener that you're adding some extra information. The commas show where you'll do that, as well as where you'll pause again to revert to your previous tone of voice.
My bagels, far better than we could have foreseen, were gone by morning.
Once you identify the comma's role as the shortest of the pauses, then you're ready to punctuate with supreme confidence. As ever, if you're working to a style guide, make sure you defer to its rulings.