Monthly Archives: November 2013

Commas demystified! The top 10 uses for commas—made simple

easy comma rulesBy Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Does the thought of inserting commas into your prose instill dread? Or do you just ignore them because their usage is so confounding? Do you write “ear commas” or “breath commas”—that is, do you place commas wherever they “sound” right or you think the reader may need to pause for breath? Are you a “grammar comma” writer—hoping your commas will land in the correct spot grammatically? Or are you simply so befuddled by commas that you don’t bother with them at all? In my work as a freelance editor, I’ve seen all of the above.

Commas are the most frequently used—and misused—form of punctuation. Annually, I receive dozens of requests for editing, and one of the biggest concerns for authors is their comma usage. They may not be aware of dozens of larger issues in their writing, but they are almost always uncertain about their comma placement.

Commas are used to indicate pauses and to separate elements in a sentence. Simple, you’d think. So why do they baffle so many writers? One reason may be that so many exceptions to comma rules exist that it hardly seems worth the bother of learning them. Another is that so often comma usage is made to seem complicated, arcane, and pedantic, fraught with eye-glazing discussions on grammar and syntax. Actually, much of that stuff really doesn’t matter, but it’s best to know a few of the terms. So yes, first, we’ll talk just a teensy bit about sentences. I promise—it’s not difficult.

Sentences consist of 1) words, 2) phrases, and 3) clauses. An independent clause is nothing more than a complete sentence, which consists of a subject and verb. It can stand on its own. A dependent clause, also known as a subordinate clause, can’t stand on its own.

A simple sentence consists of two parts, a subject and a verb or verb phrase. The verb or verb phrase is called a predicate. A compound sentence joins two or more simple sentences together. A complex sentence contains both an independent clause and a subordinate clause.

→ Simple sentences: Simon barbecued a fish. Simon barbecued a fish and served it to his guests.
→ Compound sentence: Simon barbecued a fish, and he served it to his guests.
→ Complex sentence: After Simon barbecued a fish, he served it to his guests.

To use commas effectively, it’s useful to be able to identify these elements, especially subjects and predicates. Okay, now on to commas.

The ten most frequent comma uses

1. Use a comma in a compound sentence. This is where two simple sentences (each with a subject and a verb) are joined by for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. These are called coordinating conjunctions, and their initial letters spell FANBOYS, a long-acknowledged mnemonic to remember them by.

→ Simon bought a fish, and he barbecued it for dinner.
→ Simon bought a fish, for he didn’t eat meat.
→ Simon bought a fish, but he didn’t buy any meat.
→ Simon bought a fish, yet he had four at home in the freezer.
→ Simon did not buy fish, nor did he buy meat.

You get the idea: two independent clauses (complete sentences, each with a subject and verb), are joined with one of the FANBOYS, with a comma preceding it. Don’t use commas to join two independent clauses without using a conjunction. This results in the much-reviled comma splice.

2. No comma is needed in simple sentences with one subject and two predicates. A lot of people get hung up on compound predicates. No comma is needed if the second predicate has no subject. It’s simple: if there’s no subject in the second part of the sentence, you don’t need the comma. Compare the following examples with those in #1 above. Above, each independent clause has a subject. Here, there’s only one initial subject, so no comma is needed.

→ Simon bought a fish and barbecued it for dinner.
→ Simon bought a fish but didn’t buy any meat.
→ Simon bought a fish yet had four at home in the freezer.
→ Simon bought neither fish nor meat.

3. A nonrestrictive phrase inserted into either an independent or subordinate clause should be offset by commas. (Don’t panic! Nonrestrictive simply means nonessential; if the phrase is removed, the meaning is still clear.)

→ Simon, who didn’t eat meat, bought a fish, and he barbecued it for dinner.
→ Simon bought a fish, and, after marinating it, he barbecued it for dinner.
→ Simon bought a fish and, after marinating it, barbecued it for dinner. (There is no comma after fish in the last example because the second predicate has no subject.)
→ Ellie Cheng, who works hard, will receive a raise. (Remove the phrase who works hard, and the meaning is still clear.)
→ Travel, with few exceptions, is expensive. (Remove the phrase with few exceptions, and the meaning is still clear.)

4. A restrictive phrase inserted into either an independent or subordinate clause should NOT be offset by commas. (I know you’re still not panicking. Restrictive simply means the phrase is essential for the sentence’s intended meaning to be clear.)

→ Employees who work hard will receive a raise. (Remove the phrase who work hard, and the intended meaning—that only employees who work hard will receive raises—is lost.)
→ Travel with four children is tiring. (Remove the phrase with four children, and the intended meaning—that travel is not tiring in itself, but it is with four children—is lost.)

5. Use commas with lists or a series of items. That final comma in a list is called the series comma or serial comma. Yes, lots of jokes around that one. It’s also called the Oxford comma. Whether to use the serial comma before the final and or or in a series of items is a style choice, not something that’s correct or incorrect. I happen to prefer it because it can sometimes provide clarity. Consider the following sentences:

→ In attendance were my two brothers, the doctor and the painter.
→ In attendance were my two brothers, the doctor, and the painter.

The first sentence suggests my brothers are the doctor and the painter. The second suggests four people were in attendance—my two brothers and a doctor and a painter. You can see how the omission of the serial comma results in a lack of clarity in the first sentence.

Decide whether you prefer the serial comma or not, and try to be consistent with your usage. Some editors don’t think consistency is important on this issue, and I’m okay with that too. Clarity is what’s most important.

6. When a word, phrase, or subordinate clause falls at the beginning of a sentence, a comma should follow it. If the word, phrase, or subordinate clause comes at the end of a sentence, no comma need precede it. There will always be exceptions, but let your editor worry about those.

→ During the symphony, Carlotta’s nose began to bleed.
→ Carlotta’s nose began to bleed during the symphony.
→ Next, I’m going to finish my assignment.
→ I’m going to finish my assignment next.
→ As we were heading out, a thunderstorm shook the air.
→ A thunderstorm shook the air as we were heading out.
→ To win the most important race of his career, Damian nearly killed himself.
→ Damian nearly killed himself to win the most important race of his career.

lets_eat_grandma_commas_save_lives7. Use a comma to offset yes and no, words of direct address, interjections, and tag questions.

→ Yes, the editor did make a good point.
→ No, that will never work.
→ Ellie, would you like to go to the symphony tonight?
→ With due respect, sir, your manners have left you.
→ Oh, I never thought I could do it.
→ Well, maybe I’ll give it a try.
→ Simon will barbecue fish tonight, won’t he?
→ Carlotta should be recovered by now, shouldn’t she?

8. Use commas in the following ways for dates or place names with multiple elements and for names used in direct address:

→ The Russo-Turkish war fought from Tuesday, April 24, 1877, to Sunday, March 3, 1878, cost thousands of lives.
→ The upgrades to our facilities in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Houston, Texas, will greatly improve productivity.
→ The population of Garden City, Long Island, New York, is 24,000.
→ My sister, Susan, just celebrated her birthday. (Commas used here suggest I have only one sister; the inclusion of her name is optional. Commas show Susan is a nonessential, appositional element in the sentence.)
→ My sister Susan just celebrated her birthday. (No commas here suggest I have more than one sister; the inclusion of her name is essential to the meaning of the sentence.)
→ Susan, my sister, just celebrated her birthday. (Commas are used here to clarify who Susan is. My sister is used in apposition, meaning it can substitute for Susan.)

9. Use commas in the following ways in dialogue or for quotations:

→ “Knowledge is power,” wrote Francis Bacon.
→ Susan summed up the situation when she said, “To hell with it!”
→ “When the lights go out,” he promised, “the ghost stories will begin.”

Don’t use a comma if dialogue or a quotation ends with a question mark or exclamation point.

→ “We’ve got to get out of here!” said Gwendolyn.
→ “How can we escape?” Brenda asked in alarm.

10. How to use commas between multiple descriptive adjectives preceding a noun. When more than one descriptive adjective precedes a noun, confusion often arises over whether commas should separate them. For example, why are commas needed in the second sentence here but not the first?

The new immigrant employees were given awards of merit.
Brenda is an intelligent, productive employee.

There are two ways to look at this. One is to look at cumulative vs. coordinate adjectives. Cumulative adjectives build on each other (or accumulate) and need no commas. In the first example above, the adjectives are cumulative: immigrant describes employees, while new describes the unit immigrant employees. In contrast, coordinate adjectives, which require commas, each carry the same weight, and they can be rearranged without sounding awkward. Another trick is to see whether you can replace the comma with the word and without the phrase sounding awkward.

→ Awkward (not interchangeable): The immigrant new employees were given awards of merit.
Awkward (the “and” trick doesn’t work here): The new and immigrant employees were given awards of merit.
→ Correct (interchangeable): Brenda is a productive, intelligent employee.
→ Correct (the “and” trick works here): Brenda is an intelligent and productive employee.

The order of multiple adjectives is another way to look at this. Multiple adjectives are often classed in a particular order. Caveat: these are not exact rules. Some sources differ slightly on this order, there are exceptions, and there’s a good deal more to be examined in this concept than I’ve written here.

General
observation/
opinion
Specific
observation/
opinion
Size/
shape
Age Colour Nationality/
type/
origin
Material Purpose Noun

Many adjectives fall into the “general” category. Because those are all of the same class, they’re interchangeable, and they need commas between them. If others follow from different classes, they don’t need commas, but they should go in the above order. The following are examples; keep in mind that in reality, more than two or three adjectives sounds awkward.

We love our intelligent, quirky, temperamental tiny black Pekinese puppy.
I bought a beautiful, soft long red Italian silk tie.
She wore a pair of luxurious black Spanish leather riding boots. (No commas needed since there’s only one adjective from each class.)
Let’s order a delicious medium deep-dish pepperoni pizza. (No commas needed since there’s only one adjective from each class.)

In conclusion
Although it’s best to follow comma conventions on most occasions, the main purpose of the comma is to ensure clarity and to prevent misreading. Once you’ve learned the conventional rules of commas, you can break them with discretion. If you see too many commas in a sentence, remove one or two judiciously. For example, in the following sentence, a few commas can be removed, even though it means breaking rules:

Too many commas:
→ My sister, Simona, who was the guest of honour, usually ate only fish, but, ever the picky eater, she turned up her nose at the savoury salmon Simon had prepared.

Better comma usage:
→ My sister Simona, who was the guest of honour, usually ate only fish, but ever the picky eater, she turned up her nose at the savoury salmon Simon had prepared.

There are other uses for commas, and plenty of exceptions exist. No question about it, commas can be complicated. But my challenge was to write a blog post in about 2,000 words about common comma usage that wouldn’t put you in a comma coma. Leave a comment if you’ve ever suffered from comma trauma, and if you’ve got a specific sentence or usage problem, I’ll be happy to work it out for you.

 

Serial comma comic

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl.com. http://inkygirl.com/comic-use-policy/

 

♠  ♠  ♠

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Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
November 21, 2013

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Accidental comedy in grammar—dangling and misplaced modifiers

By Arlene Prunkl, freelance editor

Dangling and misplaced modifiers

The inspiration for this blog post came from a juice box.

I was standing at the fridge one morning a few weeks ago, getting a drink of Sun-Rype juice—a well-known brand where I live—when I read the following on the side of the box: “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia, Canada lays a lush green valley of orchards renowned for sun-ripened fruit.”

Oh dear. Canada is nestled in the heart of British Columbia? Canada lays a lush green valley? Don’t we Canadians have a better reputation to uphold?

Of course, being an editor, I cannot let a grammar problem or typo go uncorrected. I’m a bit like a milder version (much milder) of Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame with her black felt pen. So the first thing I did was write to the company, Sun-Rype, to inform them of their grammatical transgressions (I hope I sounded friendly and not too schoolmarm-ish). Then I shared it with my friends and colleagues on Facebook, and we all had a good chuckle.

Now, the problem with this absurd sentence isn’t only a dangling modifier. No, this is a trio of grammar problems. The dangler was created because the verb lays should be lies; as well, the word Canada must be offset by commas on both sides. Without these, the effect is to create a bizarre dangling modifier, where the phrase doing the modifying, “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia,” makes no sense with the noun (Canada) that it appears to be modifying. Canada “laying” just about anything is just adding more nonsense to the absurdity.

Modifiers defined
What is a misplaced modifier? What is a dangling modifier? What, for that matter, is a modifier? You’ve heard these terms, no doubt often as the heart of a joke, and with good reason. Don’t get hung up on the word modifier; it’s simply a word or phrase that describes another part of the sentence. Modifying words and phrases that accidentally end up modifying (describing) the wrong thing or nothing at all can often end up causing hilarity. But funny isn’t always a good thing. When you’re trying to communicate a message, the focus should be on what you’ve said, not how you’ve said it. So, keeping the technical terms to a minimum, let’s look at some of these abused modifiers—misplaced, squinting, limiting, and dangling—and what causes them. Then we’ll have a few laughs—despite the awkward messages.

Misplaced modifiers
A misplaced modifier occurs when the modifying word, phrase, or clause is too far away from the subject it is modifying (describing), rendering the sentence awkward, ridiculous, confusing, or illogical.

In the sentence, “We found the contact lens during dinner on the carpet,” the prepositional phrase on the carpet (which functions as an adverbial phrase here, in case you wanted to know) is modifying the subject, contact lens. We found the contact lens where? On the carpet. As it stands, it appears dinner is the subject being modified.

Correct a misplaced modifier by placing the modifying phrase as close as possible to the subject it’s modifying.

Examples:
Confusing: We found the contact lens during dinner on the carpet.
Clear: During dinner, we found the contact lens on the carpet.
Confusing: The dealer sold the Ferrari to the buyer with the leather upholstery.
Clear: The dealer sold the Ferrari with the leather upholstery to the buyer.
Confusing: Too many dogs are killed by cars that roam unleashed.
Clear: Too many dogs that roam unleashed are killed by cars.
Confusing: The waitress served a roll to the woman that was well buttered.
Clear: The waitress served a well-buttered roll to the woman.

Squinting modifiers
A squinting modifier is a type of misplaced modifier that can refer to either the preceding or the following word(s), creating ambiguity. Squinting modifiers can “look both ways,” hence the term squinting.

A modifier can’t modify more than one grammatical element at a time. In general, correct squinting modifiers by placing them immediately before the word or phrase they modify, but if they’re still squinting, rearrange the sentence so there’s no ambiguity.

Examples:
1. Hiking up hills quickly strengthens your quad muscles. (Unclear whether quickly is modifying hiking up hills or strengthens.)
2. People who exercise often get results. (Unclear whether often refers to exercise or to get results.)
3. The politician discussed the high cost of living with several women. (Unclear whether cost of living is a unit or of living with several women is a unit. Of living is squinting both ways.)
4. The man she hoped would satisfy her completely frustrated her. (Unclear whether completely modifies satisfy her or frustrated her.)

Limiting modifiers
A limiting modifier limits the meaning of another word in the sentence, usually the word immediately following it. If it is misplaced, an entirely different meaning is created, depending on the placement. Typical limiting modifiers are adverbs like only, just, even, exactly, nearly, hardly, simply, merely, and almost. Only is by far the most misplaced limiting modifier.

Examples:
1. Only I want him to marry me. (Nobody else wants him to marry me.)
2. I only want him to marry me. (I want him to marry me, but I don’t need him to.)
3. I want only him to marry me. (I want no one else but him to marry me.)
4. I want him only to marry me. (Marrying me is the only thing I want him to do.)
5. I want him to only marry me. (Marrying me is the only thing I want him to do.)
6. I want him to marry only me. (I want him to marry me and no one else.)
7. I want him to marry me only. (I want him to marry me and no one else.)

Do you see how the meaning is different for most of these sentences?  In the above examples, #2 could also mean “All I want is for him to marry me.” #5 is a tad weak because it’s a split infinitive (though there’s nothing grammatically wrong with a split infinitive), and #7 modifies me by default, since that’s the word closest to the last only.

In general, correct limiting modifiers by placing them immediately before the word or phrase they modify.

Dangling modifiers
A dangling modifier occurs when the modifying word, phrase, or clause makes no logical sense with the subject it seems to be modifying, and moving it to another part of the sentence doesn’t help the clarity or logic. Danglers are usually (but not always) found at the beginning of the sentence, and because they’re not connected logically with the subject closest to them, they’re considered to “dangle” there uselessly. They often come in the form of a prepositional, adverbial, or participial phrase (don’t worry about the technical terms, but check the links if you’d like more detailed descriptions). A participle is a verb that ends in –ing or –ed, just like the one in my first example: “Nestled in the heart of British Columbia, Canada lays a lush green valley…”

More examples:
Dangling: Having finished the assignment, a night out on the town beckoned.
Revised: Having finished the assignment, she was beckoned by a night out on the town.
Dangling: Seated comfortably in the theatre, the movie began.
Revised: They were seated comfortably in the theatre when the movie began.
Dangling: At ten years old, my parents were divorced.
Revised: When I was ten years old, my parents were divorced.
Dangling: Still in the hospital, the bandages were removed from his wound.
Revised: Still in the hospital, he had the bandages removed from his wound.

Most often, what’s noticeable with danglers is the lack of a logical subject. Correct dangling modifiers in one of two ways: 1. Leave the modifier as it is, but change the subject in the main part of the sentence to be the word that is actually modified. This will ensure the modifier is right next to the word it modifies. {Still in the hospital, he had the bandages removed from his wound.} 2. Add a subject and verb to the modifier, creating a subordinate clause rather than an adverbial or prepositional phrase. {When I was ten years old, my parents were divorced.}

Google “funny dangling modifiers” or “funny misplaced modifiers” and you’ll find a lot to chuckle over. Here are a few from the Internet and from my colleagues to get you going:

  • This elevator stops on the third floor only during office hours. (Editor Arden Ogg worked in this building for months before realizing she could, in fact, take the elevator to her office on the fourth floor.)
  • Living the strenuous life of a playboy in Europe and America, his wife grew increasingly mentally unstable. (Chambers Biographical Dictionary, entry on F. Scott Fitzgerald.)
  • Pubs on both the Shankill and Falls Roads were among the first to come under scrutiny before advancing to more central locations. (The Independent, 1 May 2007. Gives new meaning to the phrase, “pub crawl.”)
  • For many years there was a male-only bathing spot near Dublin called “the Forty Foot.” A sign at the entrance read “Forty Foot Gentlemen Only.”
  • When US Marine Logan Thibault finds a photograph of a smiling woman half-buried in dirt during his third tour of duty in Iraq, his first instinct is to toss it aside. (On the back cover of The Lucky One, a book by Nicholas Sparks.)
  • With some of her new money she also bought a very early black and white television set. Mounted in a grand wood veneer cabinet, her grandchildren clamoured to come over and watch it. (From a biography of Roald Dahl.)
  • The Scarlet Letter is the tale of Hester Prynne, laid in New England.
  • Completely engulfed in flames, I was unable to identify the building.
  • After drinking too much, the toilet kept moving.
  • Being very tired, the alarm failed to disturb Morton’s sleep.
  • With his tail held high, my father led his prize poodle around the arena.
  • Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  • I saw an accident walking down the street.
  • Crawling out of my tent one morning, I saw an elephant in my pajamas.
  • Being wet, green, and warty, the princess gave the frog the kiss he needed so badly.
  • After drinking beer at a bar, the car would not start.
  • He wore a straw hat on his head, which was obviously too small.
  • A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.

And if you still haven’t had enough, one of my fellow editors found this excellent collection of abused modifiers gathered by author Eddie Snipes: http://www.eddiesnipes.com/2011/07/funny-dangling-and-misplaced-modifiers/.

What about you? Have you come across any really funny dangling or misplaced modifiers? If so, I’d love to hear from you! Please leave them in the comments below.

♠  ♠  ♠

freelance editor

Arlene Prunkl is a
and the owner of PenUltimate Editorial Services
You can find her on , , , and Facebook
November 7, 2013

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* Some examples have been modified from those found in The Little, Brown Handbook, 2nd Edition, by H. Ramsey Fowler (1983) and at http://www.towson.edu/ows/moduledangling.htm. Others are my own, from the Internet, or from my generous colleagues.
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