RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sideshow Commas


Girl With a Pearl Comma

Commas are grammar’s sheepdogs: they keep the various elements of a sentence from running off on their own and causing confusion and panic.

Commas on the Side

Commas are used to set apart non-essential pieces of your sentences. Words such as however and therefore need to be contained by a pair of commas to show that you’re interrupting your sentence with a bit of side business. Like an intermission, your aside may be interesting, but you don’t need it to understand the play.

  • The Countess, however, refused to be seen in a Volkswagen.
  • The chewing gum, therefore, was stuck to the ceiling.
  • Many hobbies can be fulfilling, for example, stamp collecting, dental-floss macramé, and sugar-cube carving.
  • The giant Madagascar hissing cockroach, I understand, makes a lovely companion.
  • Kansas, she says, is the name of the star.
  • The double-action shotgun, not diplomacy, was her forte.
  • Quality food, including poutine, is best enjoyed after a night of heavy drinking.

This rule also applies when you’re addressing someone directly:

  • Fernando, I don’t think you understand what this eggplant means to me.
  • Grab a flamingo, everyone, and start playing!
  • Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not a go-go dancer!

Sometimes it’s not clear whether the phrase in question is side business or not. (This is when grammarians start throwing around the terms restrictive clause and nonrestrictive clause.) Take, for example, this sentence:

  • My vampire, Duane, lives in the basement rec room.

This is fine if you only have one vampire; Duane can be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning. But what if you have a harem of vampires stashed in your house? You need the word Duane so your reader won’t think you’re talking about your other vampires, Joe, Hannah, and Billy Bob. When the phrase is needed to understand your sentence (that is, when it’s a restrictive clause), don’t use commas.

  • My vampire Duane lives in the basement rec room. (I have multiple vampires.)
  • My romance novel, Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles, is a real bodice-ripper. (This is my only romance novel. Take out the title and the sentence says the same thing.)
  • My romance novel Scottish Lords with Bulging Calf Muscles is a real bodice-ripper. (I have written other romance novels, some of which feature other kinds of lords with different muscles. Remove the title and you won’t know which bodice-ripper I’m talking about.)
  • She carried the shotgun not so much to shoot people as to scare them witless.
  • If you insist on wandering in the woods during the full moon and are therefore bitten by a werewolf, don’t expect sympathy from me.

Sometimes grammarians talk about the that/which rule. This rule decrees that only necessary (restrictive) clauses use the word that, and only side business (nonrestrictive) clauses use the word which.

  • The aliens that invaded my bathtub have used all the soap. (Not to be confused with the aliens in my pantry.)
  • The alien craft, which landed on Tuesday, makes a striking lawn ornament. (Only one alien craft has ever landed in these parts.)

Of course, the British blithely ignore the that/which rule and use which whenever they damn well please. You can too, as long as you’re consistent.

Next week: commas and phrases and clauses, oh my!


Commas, Commas Everywhere



The Mystical, Magical Comma

Like the Martha Stewarts of grammar, commas keep your sentences organized. Sometimes commas are optional, but there are times when you must use them or risk looking ignorant or gauche. So dust off your tux, straighten your moustache, and follow me into the Casino Royale of comma rules.

Commas and Conjunctions: Like Pancakes and Maple Syrup

Use a comma before a conjunction. What’s a conjunction? It’s a word like and, but, or yet that joins two sections of a sentence the way a hitch joins two train cars.

  • I’ve trained the squirrels outside my window to do back flips and pyramids, and we’ll be taking our act on the road next week.
  • He bought the jester’s costume and the floppy hat, but I can’t help feeling his heart isn’t in it.

If a sentence is short and its parts are closely related, you can leave out the comma:

  • I dropped her off at the racetrack and I haven’t seen her since.

Whatever you do, don’t stick a comma in your sentence instead of a conjunction. It simply can’t take the weight, and your sentence will go off the rails:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, I’ve already bought the suction cups.

The above comma needs to be either helped by a conjunction or replaced by a semicolon, which is stronger than a comma:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod, and I’ve already bought the suction cups.
  • I’m going as a cephalopod; I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Or if you’re a Hemingway-esque writer who likes ’em short and choppy, you can divide your sentence into two:

  • I’m going as a cephalopod. I’ve already bought the suction cups.

Try not to get overexcited and slap a comma in front of every and or but you see. Conjunctions can be sneaky, and sometimes you’ll find them playing different roles. They don’t need commas when they’re not acting as hitches. Consider the following sentence:

  • I wanted to go to the orgy but couldn’t find any whipping cream.

The second train car (“couldn’t find any whipping cream”) doesn’t have a subject—without the first car we don’t know who was at a loss for dairy products. The I from the first part is doing double duty for both verbs, wanted and couldn’t, which makes this one train car, not two (or a compound predicate if you want to get technical).

  • I wanted to go to the orgy, but I couldn’t find any whipping cream.

In this case we have two subjects and two verbs, which means we have two train cars (or independent clauses) joined by a hitch. As such, this but can take a comma (although the sentence is short enough to go without one if you wish).

Lists: Keeping Things in Line

When your sentence has a list of three or more, use commas to keep them separated and avoid fights:

  • According to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the ingredients for a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster include Ol’ Janx Spirit, seawater from Santraginus V, Arcturan mega-gin, Fallian marsh gas, Qualactin hypermint extract, the tooth of an Algolian suntiger, zamphour, and an olive.
  • A mouse, a duck, a dodo, a lory, an eaglet, and several other curious creatures ended up in the pool of tears with Alice.

You’ll notice both these sentences have a comma before the final and. This is called a serial comma (like a serial killer, only nicer) and it is completely optional. Whether you decide to use it or not use it, be consistent. Dropping or adding it halfway through your writing makes you look either sloppy or just plain confused.

Grammar’s Romeo and Juliet

Avoid the mysteriously common error of putting a comma between the subject and the verb:

  • People who live in glass houses, shouldn’t clean in the buff.

The subject (people) and verb (shouldn’t) are like lovers who long to be together. It would be wrong to come between them.

  • People who live in glass houses shouldn’t clean in the buff.

Next week: sideshow commas, the that/which rule, vampires, and go-go dancers.

The Literal Truth

Some people (you know who you are) use the word literally all wrong. They trot it out to add oomph to their pronouncements, not realizing it was born for a completely different role. To say you mean something literally is to swear off metaphors, figures of speech, exaggerations, and other flights of fancy. You’re declaring that you mean exactly what you say—no more, no less.

If you complain that you’re literally starving, then your body has begun to consume its internal organs. If you announce that you’re literally walking on air, expect a visit from the Department of Defence. Literally asks for your words to be taken at face value, as if read by an unimaginative robot. It’s a highly specialized word, and the only time you’re likely to need it is when your reader might think you’re being fanciful and you want to assure them you’re not:

  • At the height of her anorexia disorder, she was literally starving herself to death.
  • Without evildoers to catch, Spiderman found himself literally climbing the walls with boredom.
  • My boss shouted himself into such a rage he was literally foaming at the mouth; some of us were hit by flying spittle.

When you find yourself about to pull out literally, think twice. Maybe you meant to reach for its cousin totally instead. A careful use of literally will save you the embarrassment of describing yourself as literally boiling mad (you’re a lobster?) or literally dead on your feet (you’re a zombie) or literally shit-faced (doesn’t bear thinking about).

Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em



The Divine Apostrophe

Few punctuation marks are as abused as the blameless apostrophe. The better you understand its job, the less likely you are to do the little critter harm.

Possession: The Apostrophe’s Favourite Pastime

Apostrophes often show possession or ownership:

  • The science project’s effects were unforeseen and world-altering. (The effects belong to the science project.)
  • Satan’s cheerleaders have set fire to the auditorium. (The cheerleaders belong to Satan.)

When the owner is plural, the apostrophe dangles after the s like the severed ear in Blue Velvet:

  • The hippies’ bus is parked on our lawn.
  • The aliens’ spaceships are a fetching shade of pink.

But don’t make the mistake of giving the David Lynch treatment to plural owners that don’t end in s. They can be treated the same as singular owners:

  • The children’s pyromaniacal tendencies…
  • The men’s feather boas…
  • The sheep’s plans for world domination…

And what about singular owners that end in s? Opinion is divided. Americans like the simpler, apostrophe-only method:

  • the cactus’ spines
  • David Sedaris’ stories

The Brits, on the other hand, prefer the full Monty:

  • Tom Jones’s knickers
  • Prince Charles’s ears

If you decide to go the British route, you should know that because of tradition or weird pronunciation certain names take only an apostrophe:

  • Jesus’ sandals
  • Moses’ beard
  • Achilles’ heel

If you’re not sure, say the word out loud—if you don’t pronounce the extra s, you don’t need to write it (as in the expression for goodness’ sake).

Finally, be warned that the possessive forms of pronouns (those promiscuous little words than can be used for any person or thing) do not take apostrophes:

  • his
  • hers
  • its
  • ours
  • theirs
  • whose

You wouldn’t stick an apostrophe in these any more than you would in my or mine.

Contractions: C’mon and Squeeze Me, Baby

The ’em in this post’s title is a shorter version of them (like ’cause and because); its beginning was amputated like a gangrenous limb and an apostrophe was put in its place to show something had been removed. Similarly, contractions are words in which some of the letters have been squeezed out and replaced with apostrophes:

  • what’s = what is
  • wouldn’t = would not
  • can’t = cannot
  • let’s = let us

Some contractions are the source of considerable confusion and hair-pulling, namely

  • it’s = it is (or it has)
  • who’s = who is (or who has)
  • you’re = you are
  • they’re = they are

Their doppelgangers – its, whose, your, and their – are all possessive pronouns, like my and mine, and don’t take apostrophes.

It’s vs. Its: The Cheat Sheet

If you’re not sure which word to use, try plugging in it is (for it’s) or his (for its) and see which works best.

Example: It’s an ill wind that blows its nose in your direction.

  • It is an ill wind that blows his nose in your direction. (Makes reasonable sense)
  • His an ill wind that blows it is nose in your direction. (Total gibberish)

The example sentence is correct.

Example: Who’s the idiot whose car is at the bottom of my swimming pool?

  • Who is the idiot his car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Kind of makes sense)
  • His the idiot who is car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Not so much)

Example: You’re not giving them your best sharkskin suit!

  • You are not giving them his best sharkskin suit! (Reasonable)
  • His not giving them you are best sharkskin suit! (Horsepuckies)

Here are a few more examples:

  • What a long, strange trip it’s been. (it has been)
  • Whose brownies did you eat? (his brownies)
  • She’s a girl who’s got her heart in the right place. (who has got)
  • Unfortunately, she’s also a girl whose heart likes to step out once in a while. (her heart likes)
  • I’ll tell them you’re swimming with the dolphins. (you are swimming)
  • The slimy alien wants its teddy bear. (his teddy bear)
  • They’re spending this weekend preparing for the zombie apocalypse. (they are spending)

Advanced Confusions

Grammarians used to urge us to put apostrophes in plurals that contained numbers or capital letters, but that usage has since fallen out of fashion and you can now go with the cleaner-looking 1920s and DVDs. But there are a few situations where you might want to stick in an apostrophe to keep your reader from getting confused:

  • cross your i’s and dot your t’s
  • a report card of A’s and B’s

The point of all this punctuation is, after all, to make your reader’s work as easy as possible. The clearer your meaning, the more convincing your argument.

(A version of this article was originally published at