Mistake of the Month: Missing Commas

There are two types of writers in this world: those who use too many commas and those who use too few. While unnecessary commas can turn straightforward sentences into twisting labyrinths of syntactical confusion, missing a critical comma can change the entire meaning of your sentence.

Consider the headline from the now-infamous Rachael Ray cover of Tails magazine: “Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” While the line breaks of the original cover make it apparent what the editors meant to say, the lack of commas between the three items in the list—“cooking,” “family,” and “her dog”—caused Tails to accidentally portray Ray as a cannibal who gleefully cooks her family and dog. Wonder if she uses EVOO for that, too?

Here are some places in your writing where you should include commas:

1. After an introductory element. When complex sentences begin with a phrase or clause, a comma is required to separate the introductory element and the independent clause. The previous sentence demonstrates this rule, but let’s look at some more examples:

  • Without a care in the world, Mildred raced down the hill on her brand-new velocipede.
  • In an attempt to fix the TV, he smacked the side of the set.
  • To her, Paris would always be the most magical city in the world.

Note that with shorter introductory elements—generally those consisting of four or fewer words—you can technically skip the comma. However, it’s never wrong to use a comma in this instance, and eschewing it can lead to confusion.

2. Around a nonrestrictive or nonessential element. Nonrestrictive elements provide added information, but without them the sentence would still make sense. For example, “My wife, Karen, bakes the best peach cobbler.” Presumably the speaker has only one wife, so telling us her name is a helpful but nonessential aside. This piece from the New York Times has more on the difference between essential and nonessential elements, but here are a couple of additional examples:

  • My best friend, Jimmy Brown, always brings an extra pudding cup for me. (People can only have one best friend at a time, so his name is a nonessential element.)
  • I played the game Settlers of Catan for six hours this weekend with my friend Parvati. (Here, neither Settlers of Catan nor Parvati should be set off with commas because there are more games and friends in the world other than the two mentioned in the sentence.)

That and which indicate essential and nonessential elements, respectively. When you use that, don’t use a comma, as in “The ants that have infested my kitchen show no signs of leaving.” In this example, we need to know which specific ants the speaker is talking about. However, in the sentence “Ants, which have infested my kitchen, are my least favorite insect,” the aside set off by commas is interesting, yet taking it out doesn’t change the core meaning of the sentence.

3. After the next-to-last item in a list. Among English enthusiasts, the Oxford (or serial) comma is one of the most frequently debated topics. (Ironically, British English doesn’t tend to use the Oxford comma as frequently as American English.) When you have three or more items in a list, you have the option to use a comma between the next-to-last and last items in that list. This can sometimes clarify potential confusion or downright awkward misunderstandings. Mental Floss has a collection of pro and con examples, so take a look and decide for yourself which one you want to use.

The important thing is to be consistent; while both styles are technically correct, switching between the two in the same piece of writing is a faux pas everyone can agree on.

Are you for or against the Oxford comma? Leave a comment below!

Weekly Grammar Tips
Weekly Grammar Tips

Want more good reads?

Get the best stories delivered to you each week.

Comments 0
42 comments
penonome
penonome

You could use the Hispanic version of coma, which I find far more interesting and appetizing:

“Coma ese arroz con pollo porque esta sumamente delicioso”

Saludos, Rolando

Grammar Nerd
Grammar Nerd

Is "Punctuation" part of Grammar, or like Grammar, a subset of linguistics? 

Grammar Nerd
Grammar Nerd

The Oxford comma: better to use it all the time than have someone misunderstand communication some of the times.  

KathleenGoldsmithKilling
KathleenGoldsmithKilling

I am a physician and I work with the translation of English <> Portuguese medical texts. The Oxford comma is extremely important to convey clear meaning in not suggesting that the last two items in a list are necessarily linked or always go together.

Carl Tornell
Carl Tornell

@KathleenGoldsmithKilling In can never be suggested that the two last items are linked or go together unless that is specifically pointed out. "A, B, C, D and E" can never mean that D and E go together. To make them go together, you would have to write "A, B, C and D and E" or "A, B, C, and D and E".

nikurashi
nikurashi

Grammar books say to use commas to set off non-restrictive phrases but not restrictive clauses. That's what you're doing here. The problem is that very often it is quite difficult to determine whether the phrase is restrictive not. The example you chose is an easy one. In real life, many, if not most, of such choices are not so easy.

Lynn Owen
Lynn Owen

This isn't about the Oxford comma. I learned and try to follow this rule: if you set off a statement in commas, does the sentence make sense if you leave out what is set off in commas.

For ex: I, for one, love cake. The sentence still makes sense with I love cake.

This helps me to decide if my commas are correctly used.

kerryh
kerryh

“The ants that have infested my kitchen show no signs of leaving.” I am no friend of excessive comma use but your statement that it doesn't need commas is grammatically wrong.  "that have infested my kitchen" is a non defining relative clause which should always have a comma before and after the clause.  If it were defining, you wouldn't need to add commas.

nikurashi
nikurashi

@kerryh ,

That might be what the rule book says, but common sense tells you that a comma here would serve no useful purpose and would even be irritating. Punctuation should be to help the writer express his intent and for the reader to understand his intent ON THE FIRST READING. A comma here would only serve to defeat the reasons for punctuation.

jule_elise
jule_elise

My editor and I always disagree on the Oxford comma: I put them in; she takes them out. The battle will most likely continue forever.

NancyGriffthMarleyClark
NancyGriffthMarleyClark

I was taught that "that" is the defining pronoun, while "which" is more general.  An example would be, "The yellow car that drove down my street yesterday."  "Yellow cars which one sees every day are becoming more common."  But frankly, I almost always eliminate "that" and "which".  Totally unnecessary and clumsy. 

fefemi
fefemi

for clarity and better understanding of a writer's intention, i will choose to go with Oxford comma

penonome
penonome

Tauto, tautololo what?  Hey, man, if you are talking about my mother double it for yours!    Surfs up!

penonome
penonome

During my high school years in San Diego, surfing was always the preferred alternative to attending English class.  Now that I am seventy and learning the nuances of comma usage, it seems that surfing was not a bad choice after all. 

Carl Tornell
Carl Tornell

@penonome And now to something interesting. I don't think using the serial comma or not is a matter of style. I use it when it adds clarity, but otherwise I don't, which means that I mix the use of it with the non-use of it. As a matter of course I disagree to that this should be a faux pas. 


To me its tautological to use the serial comma, unless it adds clarity, because the "and" already signals that something else is coming up, and since it is tautological, it's a fault of style. 

Carl Tornell
Carl Tornell

You can certainly switch between using the Oxford comma and not. In my opinion, it should only be used when it adds clarity.

ElizabethPrantl
ElizabethPrantl

I Don't use the Oxford comma because I was taught differently.

Queen Mum
Queen Mum

I use the Oxford comma whenever I write, except when I write an article for the local newspaper; they always drop my Oxford comma.

nikurashi
nikurashi

Amidst all of the discussion about necessary and unnecessary commas, I'm wondering if it is possible to use too many of them. If you leave out necessary commas, there is a penalty. What if you use too may commas? What's the harm? Could it cause misunderstanding or confusion?

Gaille Robertson
Gaille Robertson

When I was in grade school, I had it hammered into my little head that no comma was to be used before the final "and" in a series. Also, as a reporter depending on the AP Stylebook, I had that reinforced.  I will usually go out of my way to rearrange a sentence for clarification rather than use the Oxford comma.

sridhar rajendran
sridhar rajendran

Even though I have been using it, I did not know the word, The Oxford Comma until now. Personally I prefer to avoid it in my writings as I feel the 'and' is quite sufficient in indicating the end of a list.


I write, therefore I am.

https://medium.com/@sridharajendran

kpn
kpn

I agree completely. That statement is presumptuous and reeks of arrogance.

CFPGUY
CFPGUY

Logically the sentence, "There are two types of writers in this world: those who use too many commas and those who use too few." is false. Assuming the writer is being neither ironic nor unnecessarily modest, it would mean that there are no writers who use commas properly which is demonstrably false. The blinking red light of logic detracts significantly from the writer's expository intent.

Grammar Nerd
Grammar Nerd

@CFPGUY Is there anything "logical" about English?  If most pedants know or understand the origin of the language and its evolution, they will "let their hair down".

kpn
kpn

Similar to Michelle, I like commas. My biggest frustration in writing, however, is the use of articles. Despite my being an avid reader, and I think about the use of articles when I spot one in situations I consider difficult from the point of view of article usage, I can not come up with the sure system when one needs one and when it is possible not to use any without raising eyebrows of a native English speaker.

kpn
kpn

Similar to Michelle, I like commas. My biggest frustration in writing, however, is the use of articles. Despite my being an avid reader, and I think about the use of articles when I spot one in situations I consider difficult from the point of view of article usage, I can not come up with the sure system when one needs one and when it is possible not to use any without raising eyebrows of a native English speaker.

nikurashi
nikurashi

@kpn '

I'm a native speaker, so maybe it's more difficult than I ever knew, or could know, but there are certainly articles on this subject. Have you tried looking for help? I do remember reading some of them, but since I don't need them, I don't remember much. Take a look. Maybe your "problem" will vanish much sooner than you thought possible.

Michelle
Michelle

I like commas.  They help me pause while reading the sentence to make sure I have the correct meaning.  My biggest frustration in writing is the use of PASSIVE VOICE   "She was the not able to help the student with higher order math."  

eagleeye5
eagleeye5

I am for alleviating any comma that does not alter the sound and meaning of a sentence! 

Kay Janon
Kay Janon

@eagleeye5 If a comma is missing I automatically include it with the previous item because there is no comma to ensure that it doesn't belong.  If it doesn't belong, even though it may SEEM to you as the writer that it should be clear, you still have caused someone to stumble for a second wondering.  Why do that?

NancyGriffthMarleyClark
NancyGriffthMarleyClark

@eagleeye5  Commas are critical to the meaning of any sentence.  For those who have no clue, their insertion is usually required when the reader, or writer, would be taking a breath, for example.   

nikurashi
nikurashi

@NancyGriffthMarleyClark @nikurashi @eagleeye5 ,

First, you probably know that more and more educated people advocate doing away with the semi-colon, or at least greatly reducing it's use, but think  of the occasions when it's use is called for: (1) between two independent clauses. (2) instead of commas when more commas would be confusing (poorly worded, but I think you know what I mean). (3) with the following: For example, However, furthermore, otherwise, That is, Namely, therefore, etc. (4) there are other cases which I choose to leave out for  now.

Let's see, the goal is to punctuate correctly using the sound system. That would work for  separate independent clause and, I think, with the second case. Finally, although I was ready to concede the third case, I now think that the sound system coupled with the ALERT WORDS mentioned, would do the job. So, although I stand to be corrected, and although I won't be using the sound system, I think it might be okay and that you can determine when and where to place periods, commas, question marks, exclamation marks, AND semi-colons, by sound. 

Trackbacks

  1. […] often misuse commas. They’re meant to let the reader know to take a pause before moving on. Some writers use too many […]

Want more good reads?

Get the best stories delivered to you each week.

Embed Code

Copy code below to embed this post to your site.