Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
academia, academic writing, proofreading, publishing, style guide

Commas save lives

New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination.

Episode 1 (writing): Commas save lives 

I recently discovered that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. Well, in the States it is. Yes, people actually celebrate punctuation! A certain Jeff Rubin launched it, and even designed a website, which is all about punctuation: rules, gadgets, games.

I guess fetishes come in all shapes and sizes.

Right, I’m taking the mickey out of poor Jeff. Actually, punctuation is quite important. If you look up #PunctuationDay on Twitter, you get a string of Tweets featuring tons of examples of punctuation gone wrong.

The most popular seem to be in the line of “Let’s eat grandpa” or “Let’s eat grandma”. Not sure why grandparents are such popular objects in these examples, but it does prove a point: commas save lives.

In my job as a proofreader, some of the errors I most regularly encounter regard punctuation. In this blog post I want to have a closer look at commas. As easy as they may seem, they are the most common sources of punctuation errors.

So here are my top 3 tips on how to use commas correctly:

  1. Commas are mainly used when two independent clauses are joined by words such as “and”, “or”, and “but”:

I did the exam, and I went down to the pub.

Only leave out the comma when the subject is omitted before the second verb (“went”):

I did the exam and went down to the pub.

What’s important to remember is that commas can’t join clauses by themselves, as in this sentence: I did the exam, I went down to the pub. Here it’s best to just use a conjunction word (“and”). In other cases you might need to do more, like splitting the sentence up using a period or a semicolon.

  1. Commas are also used a lot to separate words, in a series of three or more items:

I had wine, cheese, and crackers.

Note that I’ve added a comma before “and”. This is called an Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s used a lot in the US – less in Britain. It serves to avoid ambiguity, especially if the list already contains conjunction words. For example, in this sentence “and” is used twice: I had wine, cheese and crackers and strawberries.

As a result, it’s not clear whether cheese, crackers, and strawberries represented one dish, or were eaten separately. You wouldn’t eat a cracker with cheese and a strawberry on top, would you? If we add a comma after “crackers”, though, the situation is clearer:

I had wine, cheese and crackers, and strawberries.

Awe, brings back so many good memories of conference drinks…

  1. A third error I often come across is when a nonessential clause is NOT set off from the main sentence. A nonessential clause contains information that you can leave out of the sentence without changing its overall meaning:

Libraries, which are full of dusty bookshelves, aren’t my cup of tea.

If we were to remove “which are full of dusty bookshelves”, the meaning of the sentence as a whole – namely that you don’t like libraries – doesn’t change. It’s not essential information, so you would use a comma to set it off from the rest of the sentence.

Things change when you’re dealing with an essential clause, also called a restrictive clause (because it restricts the noun):

I don’t like libraries that look like coffee lounges.

The restrictive clause “that look like coffee lounges” says you don’t like a certain type of library, not that you don’t like all libraries. You do, just not this kind of library! In other words, the restrictive cause gives relevant information, and without it the meaning of the overall sentence changes. It’s integral to the sentence, so it can’t be set off by commas.

So you see, commas should never be underestimated, and must be used wisely and responsibly. Not just for the sake of poor old grandma.

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For more detailed explanations, examples, and tests, check out these online resources:

Blue Book of Grammar

University of Bristol grammar tutorial (followed by quiz)

Punctuation slide show (by William E. Sledzik)

Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)
Dusty bookshelves at Utrecht University Library (photo by Andrea Hajek)

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Previous post about academic writing:

The truth about notes

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