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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

using commas

10 Questions for Those Who Think They Understand Commas

Since lots of people are talking about Oxford commas and other crazy comma rules, here's a borrowed test of your ability to "hear" the commas.  Be sure to read each example out loud before you answer.

A Comma Quiz, by Mark Nichol

Do the following sentences require an additional comma (or perhaps two), the omission of an existing one (or two), or both? Answers and explanations follow.

1. The word breakfast literally means to break the fasting period of your night’s sleep, so you can refuel for the day.

2. The first scene takes place in a dimly lit, tactical command center on an aircraft carrier.

3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps,” only the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

4. One of their biggest challenges was coming up with a story that would resonate on a deep, emotional level.

5. Another English writer named Richard Browne used scientific reasoning to confirm the theory.

6. Among slaves, other popular instruments included drums made from hollowed logs covered with animal hides or kitchen pots and pans.

7. They continued to run the establishment, and took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons who kept in regular contact.

8. The storm inspired the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

10. “Newspapers and polling organizations predicted that Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, would be America’s next president.”

Answers and Explanations:

1. Delete. Inclusion of the comma in this sentence incorrectly implies that thanks to the meaning of the word breakfast, you can refuel for the day.

2. Delete. The reference is not to a command center that is dimly lit and tactical; it’s to a tactical command center that is dimly lit. (Don’t let technical jargon deter you from making sense of a compound noun.)

3. Both. Only here is not a qualifier that suggests “the ‘skiers’ and nobody else”; it’s a synonym for however, so punctuate as you would were that word used instead. Also, the first comma should be not just deleted but also replaced by an em dash that sets off the unusual circumstance described in the final phrase. (References to skiing are enclosed in scare quotes because the participants are not actually skiers but are engaging in an analogous activity.)

4. Delete. As with sentence #2, the appositive structure is confused. The reference is to an emotional level that is deep, not a level that is deep and emotional, so deep and emotional are noncoordinate adjectives and therefore require no intervening comma.

5. Add. Unless a previous sentence referenced a different English writer by that name, the phrase “named Richard Browne” should be set off by two commas to demonstrate that it’s an appositive to “another English writer” and is therefore parenthetical. (In other words, it’s nonessential; the sentence would make sense without it.)

6. Add. The drums were not made from logs covered with hides or with kitchenware; they could be hide-covered logs, or they could be pots and pans. That fact needs to be clarified with a comma following hides, plus a second from, inserted before kitchen to complete the parallel structure.

7. Both. The comma is neither necessary nor incorrect, but if it’s retained, a second they, after and, would smooth the sentence somewhat. But the definite error is this: Unless there are two groups of progeny — sons who kept in regular contact, and sons who didn’t, an appositive comma must be added after sons.

8. Delete. A quick online search will inform you that Hurston wrote more than one novel, so the nonrestrictive comma, which incorrectly implies that she published just one novel, should be jettisoned.

9. Add. The lack of a comma after tribes suggests that the slaves encountered other tribes and other dance forms, but then another verb crops up after that and creates a cognitive logjam. What the sentence means is that slaves’ encounters with slaves from other tribes led to increased exposure to new dance forms. The inserted comma will clarify that a new clause begins with and.

10. Delete. This error of apposition is one of the most annoying, relentlessly viral mistakes in English today. (Think of it this way: A comma implies a pause. Does the reader pause at all, much less twice, during this sentence?) Evidently, the misunderstanding stems from a confusion with the appositive structure of the phrase form exemplified in “Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate.”
The sentence would be correct if the were inserted before the epithet “Republican candidate,” but it is alternatively rendered proper by the omission of the two commas. The appropriate correction depends on the context (that is, whether a previous reference to a Republican candidate has been made).

How To Cure Your Fear of Commas


Do rules about how to use commas make you turn purple? No wonder! Let’s see if we can make them easier.
Commas are a relatively recent invention. When the Romans first started writing things down, they didn’t have punctuation marks. They didn’t have spaces for that matter, or lower case letters.

SOALLTHEIRWRITINGLOOKEDLIKETHISOBVIOUSLYTHATWASAPROBLEMFORTHEPOORGUYWHOHADTOREADIT

Just as spaces showed a reader when one word stopped and another started, so commas told a reader when to pause and take a breath. They were especially welcome when sentences grew longer than “Me hungry. Kill deer.”

Try reading this sentence out loud: “At the grocery we bought the following items: peas and carrots and macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings.”

Obviously you need to replace some of the "and"s with commas, but which ones? That will depend on how many separate items appeared on the cash register tape. Did you buy peas, carrots, a box of dry macaroni, a package of cheese, a whole chicken, and some frozen dumplings for a total of six items? Or did you buy three: peas and carrots, macaroni and cheese, and chicken and dumplings? Read the two versions aloud and listen for the differences.

Other comma rules apply to things like appositives, direct address, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. You won’t need such esoteric terms if you apply the pause rule. Consider this scenario. A fire occurred in the middle of the night at a rooming house where several men were living. Deaths resulted. How many died?

“The men who were asleep died in the fire.” (The sleepers died. The poker-players did not.) “The men, who were asleep, died in the fire.” (They were all asleep and they all died.)

Listen for the pauses. Add commas.

As an aside, academics sometimes argue over what is called the Oxford comma. That’s the one that appears before the final “and” in a series. When I read a series of terms (like pens, notebooks, pencils, and erasers), I hear a pause after pencils, and I always use the Oxford comma. In other words, I follow my own rule about hearing commas. You may, however, encounter an editor who thinks that extra comma is not only unnecessary but adds an extra expense—one likely to drag the publisher into instant bankruptcy. She will tell you that a comma takes the place of a conjunction, so you never need both. My advice? Don’t waste your breath on an argument in which both sides are right. Gracefully bow out, taking your Oxford commas with you. (Because editors always win.)


If  you want to read more, these sections come from The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese, now available in a Kindle edition for only $2.99.

Now That You've Learned To Listen for the Pauses . . .

. . ., here's a borrowed test of your ability to "hear" the commas.  Be sure to read each example out loud before you answer.

A Comma Quiz, by Mark Nichol

Do the following sentences require an additional comma (or perhaps two), the omission of an existing one (or two), or both? Answers and explanations follow.

1. The word breakfast literally means to break the fasting period of your night’s sleep, so you can refuel for the day.

2. The first scene takes place in a dimly lit, tactical command center on an aircraft carrier.

3. The finishing stage is a series of asphalt “ski jumps,” only the “skiers” are skiing the wrong way.

4. One of their biggest challenges was coming up with a story that would resonate on a deep, emotional level.

5. Another English writer named Richard Browne used scientific reasoning to confirm the theory.

6. Among slaves, other popular instruments included drums made from hollowed logs covered with animal hides or kitchen pots and pans.

7. They continued to run the establishment, and took great pride in the accomplishments of their sons who kept in regular contact.

8. The storm inspired the title of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

9. As slaves were moved around, they encountered other tribes and dance forms such as the Calenda gained widespread intertribal appeal.

10. “Newspapers and polling organizations predicted that Republican candidate, Thomas E. Dewey, would be America’s next president.”

Answers and Explanations:

1. Delete. Inclusion of the comma in this sentence incorrectly implies that thanks to the meaning of the word breakfast, you can refuel for the day.

2. Delete. The reference is not to a command center that is dimly lit and tactical; it’s to a tactical command center that is dimly lit. (Don’t let technical jargon deter you from making sense of a compound noun.)

3. Both. Only here is not a qualifier that suggests “the ‘skiers’ and nobody else”; it’s a synonym for however, so punctuate as you would were that word used instead. Also, the first comma should be not just deleted but also replaced by an em dash that sets off the unusual circumstance described in the final phrase. (References to skiing are enclosed in scare quotes because the participants are not actually skiers but are engaging in an analogous activity.)

4. Delete. As with sentence #2, the appositive structure is confused. The reference is to an emotional level that is deep, not a level that is deep and emotional, so deep and emotional are noncoordinate adjectives and therefore require no intervening comma.

5. Add. Unless a previous sentence referenced a different English writer by that name, the phrase “named Richard Browne” should be set off by two commas to demonstrate that it’s an appositive to “another English writer” and is therefore parenthetical. (In other words, it’s nonessential; the sentence would make sense without it.)

6. Add. The drums were not made from logs covered with hides or with kitchenware; they could be hide-covered logs, or they could be pots and pans. That fact needs to be clarified with a comma following hides, plus a second from, inserted before kitchen to complete the parallel structure.

7. Both. The comma is neither necessary nor incorrect, but if it’s retained, a second they, after and, would smooth the sentence somewhat. But the definite error is this: Unless there are two groups of progeny — sons who kept in regular contact, and sons who didn’t, an appositive comma must be added after sons.

8. Delete. A quick online search will inform you that Hurston wrote more than one novel, so the nonrestrictive comma, which incorrectly implies that she published just one novel, should be jettisoned.

9. Add. The lack of a comma after tribes suggests that the slaves encountered other tribes and other dance forms, but then another verb crops up after that and creates a cognitive logjam. What the sentence means is that slaves’ encounters with slaves from other tribes led to increased exposure to new dance forms. The inserted comma will clarify that a new clause begins with and.

10. Delete. This error of apposition is one of the most annoying, relentlessly viral mistakes in English today. (Think of it this way: A comma implies a pause. Does the reader pause at all, much less twice, during this sentence?) Evidently, the misunderstanding stems from a confusion with the appositive structure of the phrase form exemplified in “Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican candidate.”
The sentence would be correct if the were inserted before the epithet “Republican candidate,” but it is alternatively rendered proper by the omission of the two commas. The appropriate correction depends on the context (that is, whether a previous reference to a Republican candidate has been made).

Conquering Commas

 Have you ever really tried to understand a grammar book?  Most sound like this:

“Commas are punctuation marks with a variety of different uses. They primarily deal with helping the reader identify grammatical relationships between items in a sentence, and are often instrumental in establishing the flow of a sentence. Both commas and semicolons can link independent clauses together, but they're used in different ways. When you use a comma to link two independent clauses together, you also need to use a coordinating conjunction such as "and." The relationship between the two clauses changes slightly based on which coordinating conjunction you use. A semicolon can also link independent clauses, but does not require a coordinating conjunction.”

Do rules about how to use commas make you turn purple?  No wonder! Let’s see if we can make them easier. 

Commas are a relatively recent invention.  When the Romans first started writing things down, they didn’t have punctuation marks.  They didn’t have spaces for that matter, or lower case letters. 

SOALLTHEIRWRITINGLOOKEDLIKETHISOBVIOUSLYTHATWASAPROBLEMFORTHEPOORGUYWHOHADTOREADIT

Just as spaces showed a reader when one word stopped and another started, so commas told a reader when to breathe. They were especially welcome when sentences grew longer than “Me hungry. Kill deer.”

Try reading this sentence out loud: “At the grocery we bought the following items: peas and carrots and macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings.”    

  Obviously you need to replace some of the ands with commas, but which ones? That will depend on how many separate items appeared on the cash register tape. Did you buy peas, carrots, a box of dry macaroni, a package of cheese, a whole chicken, and some frozen dumplings for a total of six items?  Or did you just buy three: a package of mixed peas and carrots, a container of macaroni and cheese, and a can of chicken and dumplings? Read the two versions aloud and listen for the differences. 

Other comma rules apply to things like appositives, direct address, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses.  You won’t need such esoteric terms if you apply the pause rule.  Consider this scenario.  A fire occurred in the middle of the night at a rooming house where several men were living. Deaths resulted.  How many died?   

“The men who were asleep died in the fire.” (The sleepers died while the poker-players did not.) 
“The men, who were asleep, died in the fire.” (They were all asleep and they all died.)

Listen for the pauses.  Add commas.    

As an aside, academics sometimes argue over what is called the Oxford comma.  That’s the one that appears before the final “and” in a series.  When I read a series of terms (like pens, notebooks, pencils, and erasers), I hear a pause after pencils, so I always use the Oxford comma.  In other words, I follow my own rule about hearing commas.  You may, however, encounter an editor who thinks that extra comma is not only unnecessary but adds an extra expense likely to drag the publisher into instant bankruptcy.  She will tell you that a comma takes the place of an “and”, so you never need both.  My advice?  Don’t waste your breath on an argument in which both sides are right.  Gracefully bow out, taking your Oxford commas with you. (Because editors always win.)

RULE: A NATURAL PAUSE INDICATES A COMMA.  

Tomorrow I’ll have a quiz for you, so that you can test yourself.