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Comma Chameleon



Comma vs. Tsunami

The uses of the comma are almost endless. (Or maybe it’s just my blog posts that seem endless.) Today I give you a grab bag of comma deployments, including introductory clauses, multiple adjectives, places, dates, and more. Dig in!

Introductory Phrases: The Big Tease

Some phrases beg the question, then what? When such a phrase is poised, oozing anticipation, before the subject of your sentence, corral it with a comma. (If you want to get grammatical, these phrases are dependent clauses, which start with if; adverbial phrases, which start with adverbs; and participial phrases, which start with participles.)

  • If I told you the recipe, I’d have to kill you.
  • After they all stumbled home at dawn, I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake.
  • Having recently lost his mind, the Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

With short adverbial phrases the comma can be left out:

  • On Tuesday I went mad.

If the phrase comes after the subject, you don’t need a comma…

  • I’d have to kill you if I told you the recipe.
  • I sneaked into the kitchen and ate the leftover cake after they all stumbled home at dawn.

…except when it’s a participial phrase:

  • The Duke was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer, having recently lost his mind.
  • The Duke, having recently lost his mind, was untroubled by anxiety over his missing schnauzer.

Adjective Conga Lines

When you have two or more adjectives describing the same word, put a comma between them:

  • The demon made a dedicated, insinuating telemarketer.

But there are times when you don’t want to sprinkle commas in your adjective line:

  • He always came to work wearing a bright red power tie.

How can you tell the difference? Try plopping the word and between adjectives. If it works, use a comma; if it doesn’t, don’t.

  • The demon made a dedicated and insinuating telemarketer. (It works: insert comma.)
  • He always came to work wearing a bright and red and power tie. (No, no, no. Skip the commas.)

Places and Dates

When place names have more than one part to them—for example, city and country—the second part needs commas on either side:

  • She’s going to a philatelists’ convention in Gdansk, Poland, next month.
  • Walla Walla, Washington, is only funny if you don’t live there.

The same principle applies to dates:

  • The lovers met on Thursday, May 6, at the garbage dump.
  • On June 23, 1982, I made a pact with Mephistopheles.

But certain date configurations don’t take commas. The British-style date (day, month, year) is comma-less. So is the month and year only, or a well-known holiday plus year:

  • Mr. Bond and his attractive companion will land at the villain’s secret island lair on 12 August 1964.
  • If all goes as planned, our new adopt-a-rodent program will be running by May 2010.
  • New Year’s Day 2000 was a bit of a letdown for end-of-the-world enthusiasts.

Oh No You Don’t!

Introductory words such as yes, no, oh, and well should be followed by a comma:

  • Yes, I do think it was tasteless of you to ask them about wife-swapping.
  • Oh, I never feed the wolves after dark.
  • No, you won’t like what you find in my basement.
  • Well, I meant to bring dessert, but I got hungry on the way over.
  • Man, these flashbacks are really distracting.

Unless, that is, they’re part of a common expression or informal phrase:

  • Oh yeah?
  • Oh my God.
  • Oh no, not another apocalypse!
  • No I won’t!
  • Yes you will!

Also, a question contained inside a sentence can be set off by a comma:

  • The question was, how many hotdogs would satisfy the Ogopogo?

Smoothing the Reader’s Way

Finally, the most important function of the comma is to clarify your meaning, so use one wherever it will keep your reader from becoming confused:

  • She recognized the murderer as he rose from the table, and pointed a trembling finger. (Notice how this sentence’s meaning changes without the comma.)
  • The fleas hopped in, in groups of three.

All these rules may seem a lot to wrap your head around, but a well-placed comma can make all the difference in your writing. Remember: If you’re good to the comma, the comma will be good to you.