Monday, April 16, 2007

Writing for Grammar: Comma, not Coma

There is only one letter difference between comma and coma; that’s because discussions of punctuation can lead to rapid loss of consciousness.

We’ll tackle this one nevertheless.

A comma is the equivalent to a roadside SLOW sign, much like a period equals a STOP sign. The main function of a comma is to prevent sentence parts from colliding into one another unexpectedly, causing misreadings as in the following:

If you cook Elmer will do the dishes.

While we were eating a rattlesnake approached our campsite.

Commas will prevent Elmer from being cooked and that rattlesnake from being eaten.

1. Use a comma between two independent clauses. An independent clause is a complete sentence, with subject and predicate, that can stand on its own.

Good Example: We firmly believe in the value of good writing, and we can produce writing that gives our clients a competitive edge.

The most common mistake is to add a comma even though only one part of a sentence is independent.

Bad Example: The newlyweds toured the town during the day, then went dancing in the evening.

2. Use a comma after an introductory word group.

Good Example: When choosing a car, know what you want before stepping into a dealership.

3. Canadian usage calls for a comma between all items in a series. U.S. usage does not, so there is enough confusion here to cause red-pen duels at close range.

Good Example: The companies that declared profit increases were Alcan Aluminium, American Greetings, Rubbermaid, and Excite.

Without the last comma, the final company name becomes “Rubbermaid and Excite”.

4. Set off a nonrestrictive clause (which is a string of words that can be enclosed in parentheses while the rest of the sentence still has meaning) with commas. Nonrestrictive clauses typically begin with a relative pronoun (who, whom, whose, which, that) or a relative adverb (where, when).

Good Example: Set off a nonrestrictive clause, which is a string of words that can be enclosed in parentheses, with commas.

5. Use a comma between coordinate adjectives but not cumulative adjectives.

Two or more adjectives are coordinate if each modify a noun separately. The clue is if you can change the order and not change the meaning.

Example: Bob Roberts is tall, red-haired, and wears glasses.

Two or more adjectives are cumulative if they depend on each other for the final meaning. The clue is if you change the meaning of you change the order.

Example: Some mutual fund companies used to offer 100% RSP-eligible international funds.

In the end punctuation counts. Consider the difference in meaning of the following sentences:

A woman without her man is nothing.

A woman; without her, man is nothing.

For more writing tips, go to:


Charles Dickens said...

If I was alive today, I would certainly have Steven Moore as my editor. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.

My characters and plots were good, but even I know that sometimes my descriptions went on and on. That’s what happens when you are paid by the word.

Anyway, Steven could tighten up some of my wordy spots a little and really improve my work. There’s no question that he would be my first choice.

Charles Dickens

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