Posted by: WITP | 20 September 2011

Technical Tips Series: the Comma

Anyone can write, but your actual sentence construction, the proper use of grammar, and punctuation marks are a whole technical ball game.  With that in mind, and the fact that we all want to become better writers WITP presents a series of articles written by Suzanne on the more technical aspects of our craft:

How to… use commas

The comma is more than just a rather pretty butterfly http://www.butterfly-conservation.org/species/bdata/comma.html.

There are four main uses of commas http://www.informatics.susx.ac.uk/doc/punctuation/node09.html:

  •  the listing comma
  • the joining comma
  • the gapping comma
  • bracketing commas.

The listing comma
In a list http://universitywriting.shu.ac.uk/punct/advice/s_comma.htm, use a comma between each item, and a joining word (‘and’, ‘or’) between the last two, eg ‘I have books by Valerie Bloom, Ian McMillan, Paul Cookson and Enid Blyton next to my bed.’  Some people use the ‘serial’ or ‘Oxford’ comma.  This is a comma before the last ‘and’ in the list http://www.bloomfield.me.uk/entries/001769.htm and can make lists clearer.

The joining comma
Use a joining comma to join two separate statements in a sentence http://www.informatics.susx.ac.uk/doc/punctuation/node11.html. Unlike using a semicolon for this, you need a joining word, like ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘while’, and ‘yet’ (note the neatly punctuated list!)  For example, ‘there is a wildebeest on the windowsill, but it’s not blocking the light’.  Missing out the joining word creates a comma splice http://www.usingenglish.com/articles/comma-splice.html.

The gapping comma
Gapping commas http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/tta/sentpunc/sentpunc.htm#gap indicate where words have been left out.  This avoids repeating words, and can make sentences sound better.  For example, rather than saying ‘The moon is famous for its cheese and Mars is famous for its chocolate’, you can use ‘The moon is famous for its cheese and Mars, its chocolate’.

The bracketing comma
Bracketing commas http://www.rogerdarlington.co.uk/punctuation.html separate off ‘weak’ parts of the sentence (parts that could be missed out easily without changing the meaning of the sentence).  In both of these examples you could miss out the bits between the bracketing commas and it would still make sense:

  •  The cat sat on the mat, which was blue, and washed its tail
  • The wildebeest sat on the cat, which was a tabby, and then apologised.

 Speech commas
There is another common use of commas—these are also used with speech, to separate the person saying thngs, and the things that they say http://www.gcse.com/english/speech.htm.  For example:

  •  John said, “Have you put the wildebeest out yet?”
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