Public Enemy #1: The Comma (Part I)

Part One: serial, parenthetic, and non-restrictive

 Let me preface our discussion with an important note: The rule is NOT that you use a comma wherever there is a pause. Many have fallen prey to this notion – it’s so easy, so obvious, of course it’s right. NO, it’s not right. Dump this idea immediately.

 Pause ≠ Comma. Comma ≠ Pause.

 With that out of the way, let’s begin. The comma is not as scary as it would lead you to believe. The comma’s power lies in its ability to remain ambiguous, like the wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. But it cannot hide from our heroes, Strunk & White, who, in a few simple rules, pull back the curtain and reveal the comma for the easily mastered piece of punctuation that it is.

 S&W Rule 2: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last” (p. 2).

  • This is called the “serial” comma – the comma used for lists.
  • Examples:
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons bought cat food, cat litter, and a bullet-proof vest at the store today.
    • Mittens watched Mrs. Mufflebuttons walk up the drive, unlock the door, and step inside.

S&W Rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas” (p. 2).

  • Parenthetic information interrupts the flow of the sentence; if you were to take the information out of the sentence, the sentence would still make sense and would flow better. In fact, reading the sentence without the information is a good way to test whether the information is parenthetic.
    • Example:
      • Mittens, having vowed to never forget the slight, patiently waits for the opportunity to make Mrs. Mufflebuttons pay for her refusal to snuggle.
    • Test: Mittens patiently waits for the opportunity to make Mrs. Mufflebuttons pay for her refusal to snuggle.
      • The sentence still makes sense when we remove “having vowed to never forget the slight” – thus, the phrase is parenthetic.
  • Dates also contain parenthetic information:
    • Example: Today, January 22, is the day Mittens will finally have his revenge.
    • Test: Today is the day Mittens will finally have his revenge.
      • The sentence still makes sense without the date.
  • A name or title in a direct address is also parenthetic:
    • Examples:
      • Oh dear, Mrs. Mufflebuttons, you really are in trouble.
      • “No, Sir, you may not perch atop the refrigerator,” Mrs. Mufflebuttons scolded Mittens.
    • Test:
      • Oh dear, you really are in trouble.
      • “No, you may not perch atop the refrigerator,” Mrs. Mufflebuttons scolded Mittens.
  • The abbreviations etc., i.e., and e.g. are parenthetic:
    • Example:
      • Mittens deliberately arranged his ball of yarn, bell, toy mouse, etc., at the top of the stairs.
  • Academic degrees and official titles are also parenthetic:
    • Example:
      • Feeling that something was amiss, Mrs. Mufflebuttons scheduled an appointment for Mittens with Cornelius Catnip, Ph.D, the renowned cat whisperer who specializes in sociopathic felinitis.
  • Non-restrictive clauses are parenthetic:
    • A non-restrictive clause is a descriptive phrase that is unnecessary to meaning because it does not identify or define the noun.
      • Example:
        • Cornelius Catnip, whose methods have been questioned by the cat whisperer community, attempted to hypnotize Mittens.
        • We do not need to know that Dr. Catnip’s methods are questionable in order to know who Dr. Catnip is – the information provides added detail, but is unnecessary to the identification of Dr. Catnip.
    • A restrictive clause, on the other hand, is not parenthetic and does not require commas because it is information that is necessary to identifying and defining the noun.
      • Examples:
        • The cat that is named Mittens clawed the good doctor on the arm.
          • There are many, many cats, so we need to specify that we are talking specifically about Mittens. If we took “that is named Mittens” out of the sentence, it would no longer be clear which cat was doing the clawing.
        • Dr. Catnip’s brother Joe had warned him of the dangers of cat whispering.
          • If Dr. Catnip has more than one brother, we need to specify that we are talking about Joe, so the name is necessary and not set off by commas.
          • If Dr. Catnip only has one brother, however, then the name is unnecessary and placed within commas: “Dr. Catnip’s brother, Joe,…”

Easy enough, right? Your comma anxiety is slowly deflating…next time you will be cured! And that’s not all – you’ll get the added bonus of semicolon mastery!

 

 

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