Mistake of the Month: Missing Commas

by • October 01, 2013

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”—the fact remains that Tails accidentally portrayed 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 that 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. Also, remember that if the dependent clause comes at the end of a complex sentence rather than the beginning, you should not use a comma. For example, “She enjoyed classic jazz although the modern stuff held no appeal.” Many writers would be tempted to put a comma between jazz and although, but that would be wrong.

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 more 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 potentially 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!