How To Use a Comma

by on June 6, 2012 in Must Reads with No Comments »

The New York Times has always been good at coming up with intellectually relatable witty titles for the articles it posts to its website, and University of Delaware Professor Ben Yagoda’s recent post, “The Most Comma Mistakes,” is no exception. Now, before you do anything else, take a second look at the sentence you just read. You will notice that it is rather long (40 words) but that it contains only three commas. “How can that be?” you might wonder. “The longer a sentence is, the more commas it needs, right?” Well, that isn’t necessarily incorrect, but it’s not correct either. In fact, it’s one of those things people think is true when they don’t actually have any idea about what they’re talking about. For the truth is that if everyone took a moment to learn the basic rules of comma usage, they would find that it’s not all that difficult to master.

This is the point of Yagoda’s post—to dispel certain myths about commas that he knows people believe in because he sees people consistently making them. He highlights a number of errors, categorizes them accordingly, and gives plenty of simple examples. He also writes in clear language and avoids tricky grammatical terms that, though technically correct, typically end up confusing students. If you want to know his suggestions, you might as well read the post. It’s easy to follow primarily due to his conversational tone. Rather than sound like an archaic textbook that throws information at you, Yagoda sounds like a wise old friend who just wants you to listen because he knows what’s best for you.

So go and read him—but don’t leave my post yet. We still have to examine my first sentence. (Go ahead, reread it.) The first comma in the sentence appears after the word “website.” The function of this comma is to split up the two independent clauses that comprise the sentence. By definition, a sentence expresses a complete thought. To express a complete thought, we need a subject and verb, and if we have a subject and a verb, we have an independent clause—a clause that can, by virtue of its expression of an independent thought, stand alone. Often times when we are writing, we want to string together two independent clauses, especially if they are thematically linked, which is a fancy way of saying they “go together.”

That’s what happened in the opening sentence of this blog post: the first independent clause is about how the NY Times creates good titles; the second independent clause is about a recent blog post on the Times being a good example of this. Since the first clause sort of “leads into” the second clause, rather than have the two clauses be their own sentences (and therefore separated by a period), and rather than placing them in the same sentence but separating them with a semicolon (which, in my opinion, would have made the sentence clunky), I joined them together with the “connector” word “and” (technically called a “coordinating conjunction”). Finally, to avoid making my long sentence difficult to understand, I finished things off by placing a comma before “and,” which is what we are required to do in this situation. This way, I adhered to the rules of grammar.

But even if I didn’t understand the rules of grammar, you know how I would have known to put a comma before “and”? Because of the natural pause in the sentence. Indeed, no matter how long a sentence is, when it is read correctly (i.e. when the reader picks up on the author’s intent and reads with the correct rhythm), the natural pauses become quite obvious, and that’s your clue to put in a comma. This rule isn’t 100% (few things in grammar are), but if you follow it, you’ll be better off than not.

As for the final two commas in that opening sentence? The ones after “post” and mistakes”? Well, those are just there to satisfy the rule of the appositive, which involves a renaming of a noun. If you look at the sentence one last time, you’ll see that it wasn’t essential for me to include the name of (i.e. to “rename”) “Ben Yagoda’s recent post” but that I did so because I wanted you to read the post. This required me to “set off” (to put commas around) the name of the post. And now it is requiring you to read that post.

($10 to whoever can name the antecedent of the preceding sentence’s “it.”)


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