English As She Is Writ - part seven

The comma

The full stop, as explained in the previous instalment of this blog, has a magisterial simplicity.

The comma, by way of contrast – and rather like the Commer vehicles built by the Rootes Group in the Olden Days – is a jack of all trades. 

It performs a number of diverse functions, and as far as I can see the only factor that those functions have in common is that the comma acts to clarify the meaning of the text.

I therefore present the uses of the comma; don’t use a comma for anything else.

 1    The comma is used to separate the items in a list. Here are four examples.

  • I play football, hockey, chess and shove-ha’penny.
  • We played a game of football, watched the hockey on television, tried to play chess, and ended up playing shove-ha’penny.
  • It was a cold, damp, foggy, miserable night.
  • Truly, madly, deeply.

         As you see the items separated by commas may be nouns, as in the first example; phrases within a sentence, as in the second; adjectives, as in the third; or adverbs, as in the fourth.

        In the first example American English would usually place another comma after the word ‘chess’ (I play football, hockey, chess, and shove-ha’penny). This is known as the Oxford Comma. I tend to eschew it, although as you see I have inserted a comma after ‘chess’ in the second example. This is because I intend the second example to be nothing more than a list of consecutive, unrelated activities; absent a comma after ‘chess’ the reader might infer that the playing of shove ha’penny was a consequence of the failure to play chess. Such is the power of punctuation (or its absence) to affect meaning.

 2  The comma is used to indicate parenthesis (in other words a word, a phrase, a clause or a short sentence that is an aside or detour from the main sentence).

     When the parenthetical word, phrase or clause is within the body of a sentence there is a comma before the parenthetical clause or sentence, and there is one after it.

     Pairs of commas used in this way act as brackets around the clause or sentence.

     Here are four examples.

  • Have you forgotten, fool, that we are to go out tonight?
  • I told you, you forgetful idiot, that we were going out tonight.
  • He said, although I confess I had forgotten it, that we were going out tonight.
  • The barbarians, stained with woad and uttering ferocious war-cries, are at the city gates.

       The significant point is that, in each of the examples above, if you remove the commas and the words within them the sentence remains grammatically correct and entirely comprehensible.

       The parenthetical word or phrase may be bounded by two commas, as stated above, but it may also be bounded by a comma and a full stop, or the beginning of the sentence and a comma, if it occurs at the end or beginning of a sentence. Here are two examples.

  • It is unwise to be too prescriptive, particularly in respect of punctuation.
  • However, prescription is necessary if one is to punctuate conventionally.

     In the examples above ‘particularly in respect of punctuation’ and ‘however’ may be removed from their sentences without altering the meaning. They are parenthetical text which happen to be at the beginning or end of the sentence, and so have only one comma.

 3  The comma is used when addressing a person or a thing, after the word or words of address and before the name of the person or thing being addressed.

Here are four examples.

  • Rule, Britannia!
  • Your wish is my command, your Majesty.
  • Do hurry up, Percival. Your trout is getting cold.
  • Hello, Jo.

 4  To an extent similar to the usage at 3 above, the comma is used when writing speech (either indirectly or directly) to indicate the end of the spoken words when that is not the end of the entire sentence. Here are five examples.

  • The war would be over in three days, the general said.
  • ‘The war will be over in three days,’ the general said.
  • The general said, ‘The war will be over in three days’.
  • ‘Do hurry up, Percival,’ I shouted. ‘Your trout is getting cold.’
  • ‘At this rate the war will be over,’ I said, ‘before you eat this trout.’

       The first example above demonstrates reported or indirect speech; the other four show direct speech.

       I will discuss the punctuation of speech in detail in a later instalment of this blog. However the examples above contain most of the key elements.

 5  The comma may be used, but only with a conjunction, to join two or more short sentences that form parts of a longer sentence.

Here are four examples. In each case I show first two separate sentences; then the two sentences joined by a conjunction; and finally with the addition of a comma. As you will see all three situations are comprehensible, and which of them one writes is a matter of preference.

  • I’m tired. I’m going for a walk.
  • I’m tired but I’m going for a walk.
  • I’m tired, but I’m going for a walk.
  • He set off along the cliff path. He always took a stroll after lunch.
  • He set off along the cliff path because he always took a stroll after lunch.
  • He set off along the cliff path, because he always took a stroll after lunch.
  • I usually take a stroll after lunch. Perhaps you’d care to accompany me along the cliff path?
  • As I usually take a stroll after lunch perhaps you’d care to accompany me along the cliff path?
  • As I usually take a stroll after lunch, perhaps you’d care to accompany me along the cliff path?
  • His conversation bored me. I threw him from the cliff.
  • His conversation bored me so I threw him from the cliff.
  • His conversation bored me, so I threw him from the cliff.

       All of the above are conventionally acceptable. What is not acceptable is joining two sentences with a comma alone (His conversation bored me, I threw him from the cliff). When joining two  sentences, use a conjunction. In the examples above the conjunction in each second iteration of the example is in bold type and underlined.

In the next instalment : the colon, and very possibly also the semicolon. Do try to contain your excitement.

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.

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