Abuses of the Comma
Last week we looked at how useful the comma can be, this week I want to talk about some of the ways the comma can be misused.
Let’s start with everyone’s favourite, the comma splice. A comma splice occurs when two independent clauses are incorrectly joined by a comma. An independent clause is like a mini sentence that can stand on its own. For example:
Henry was a gardener.
James enjoyed the beach.
When you join them with a comma, you get a comma splice:
Henry was a gardener, James enjoyed the beach.
How do you fix this? You have two choices. You can either replace the comma with a semi colon, or you can add in a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, so, yet).
Henry was a gardener, but James enjoyed the beach.
Henry was a gardener; James enjoyed the beach.
Here’s a few other things to watch out for:
1. Do not use a comma to separate the subject from the verb.
Incorrect: Taxes in the city, are higher than in the country.
Correct: Taxes in the city are higher than in the country.
2. Do not put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate.
Incorrect: I turned the corner, and ran right into the mailman.
Correct: I turned the corner and ran right into the mailman.
3. Do not use a comma to separate the subject from its predicate.
Incorrect: Registering for our seminar before January 6, will save you forty percent of the cost.
Correct: Registering for our seminar before January 6 will save you forty percent of the cost.
4. Do not use a comma to separate a verb from its object or its subject complement, or a preposition from its object:
Incorrect: I hope to send to you before I leave, a copy of my will.
Correct: I hope to send to you before I leave a copy of my will.
5. Do not put a comma after a co-ordinating conjunction.
Incorrect: Sleet fell heavily on the tin roof but, the family was used to the noise and paid it no attention.
Correct: Sleet fell heavily on the tin roof, but the family was used to the noise and paid it no attention.
6. Do not use commas to set off words and short phrases (especially introductory ones) that are not parenthetical or that are very slightly so.
Incorrect: After the rain, the sun will shine.
Correct: After the rain the sun will shine.
7. Do not use commas to set off restrictive elements:
Incorrect: The fingers, on his left hand, are bigger than those on his right.
Correct: The fingers on his left hand are bigger than those on his right.
8. Do not put a comma between the two nouns, noun phrases, or noun clauses in a compound subject or compound object.
Incorrect (compound subject): The music teacher from your high school, and the football coach from mine are married.
Incorrect (compound object): Susan told me that there was a job available, and that the CEO wanted to interview me.
Both of this can be corrected by taking out the comma.
9. Sometimes you will run into a relative clause (a subordinate clause that modifies a noun or noun phrase) that can be either restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on whether or not you use a comma:
My daughter, who is even smarter than I am, is named Joan.
My daughter who is even smarter than I am is named Joan.
My friend recently went to see Macbeth, which was being performed at the Stratford Festival.
My friend recently went to see Macbeth which was being performed at the Stratford Festival.
Grammatically, all the above sentences are correct. In a case like this you will need to make a judgement call.
If you have an aspect of grammar you’d like me to explore, feel free to let me know in the comments or email me at carolrward(at)gmail(dot)com.