The Remote Bits of Stale Potato Chips and Pennies: Where Do the Commas Go?

On March 18, 2008, the Supreme Court met to hear the oral arguments of Columbia v. Heller, the outcome of which will be the first official interpretation of the Second Amendment in US history, determining whether or not the Constitution grants all citizens the right to bear arms (Greenhouse). Why is this interpretation necessary? Apparently there is a comma problem. The Second Amendment not so clearly states, "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" (qtd. in Freedman). With all of the commas stitched into the sentence like a patches in a quilt, the sentence looks like a series of unrelated fragments: No wonder the meaning is up for grabs. After a closer look, however, it is clear that the first two phrases should read as one absolute phrase, "a well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State," which then leads into independent clause, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed" (one can omit the last comma, as it unnecessarily separates the subject from the predicate). This leaves the second comma to separate the introductory phrase from the independent clause, and it is that comma that is debated. Does the comma separate the phrase from the clause in grammar and meaning—as pro-gun affiliates assert—or grammar only—as the pro-control movement believes (Freedman)? This is one of the questions the justices must answer.

Why couldn't our forefathers write what they meant, plainly, without jamming unrelated clauses and phrases together in long sentences and connecting them with three dozen commas? Why are commas even necessary? To answer the first question, that is simply the way commas were used in the 18th century, sporadically and in nonsensical places (Freedman). And as for the second, without commas in the right places, ambiguous sentences rear their misshapen heads. For example, "A woman without her man is nothing." This sentence could read,

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

But it could also read,

A woman: without her, man is nothing (Hooker).

As you can see, commas—and all other forms of punctuation—are important, and placed correctly, they mold sentences to fit the writer's intentions, allowing the reader to interpret correctly. In other words, punctuation is for the reader. Unfortunately, the writers (or editors if one is lucky enough to have them) are the ones who must place these troublesome marks, and quite frankly, only a diminishing few know where "correctly" is. The following is an exhaustive definition of "correctly placed commas," which should reverse that diminishing few into an increasing many.

Expressions with Coordinating Conjunctions

Coordinating conjunctions are words that connect two independentclauses, most commonly and, but, and or. Some grammars, such as Strunk and White's Elements of Style, also list as (when it is used in the sense of because), for, nor, and while (5). Others subtract while but add yet and so to the list (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 209; Hacker 259). The naming is debatable. I would consider anything other than and, but, or, and nor to be a subordinating conjunction as they indicate unequal relationships between the clauses they begin and the independent ones, but naming is not the issue here.

When a conjunction separates two independent clauses, place a comma beforethe conjunction. For example,

-I opened the door, and a miniature superman held out his bag for candy.

-You can't have cake before dinner, nor can you have a cookie.

-I will not be going to the circus Friday, for I hate clowns and avoid them at all costs.

Make sure the conjunction separates two independent clauses. This comma structure does not work if there are not a subject and a verb on both sides ( The Online Writing Lab).

-The girl screamed at the dog for gnawing on her teddy bear and took the mutilated toy to her mother for mending.

"Took the mutilated toy to her mother for mending" does not have its own subject; therefore, it is not an independent clause and does not need a comma.

If you are unsure whether a sentence requires a comma before the conjunction, mentally exchange the conjunction for a period. If you have two complete sentences, you need a comma before the conjunction. If not, do not place a comma there.

This works for all the conjunctions italicized above except for while and so. I have never known while to need a comma before it, and all the grammars I have read outside of Strunk and White seem to testify to that. So can be confusing. If so in a sentence can be exchanged for so that, then it does not require a comma before it. If, however, the so means therefore, then a comma is necessary.

-I need another Anthropology class so I can graduate next year. so can be read so that. (No comma needed)

-It was raining, so the archaeologists could not excavate the site. so means therefore. (A comma is needed)

There is an almost hostile debate among grammarians (and ordinary natives of the English tongue) about this comma rule. Some have accepted the comma before a coordinating conjunction, fearing large red Fs that accompany disobedience, but others rebel. David W. Boles, editor of an on-line blog, writes "I never use a comma before an 'and' though many people employ a comma there" (David W. Boles' Urban Semiotic). He is one of many native speakers who feel that way, and an increasing number of grammarians agree with him. But I have several problems with this anti-comma movement. One, many comma protesters assume that a comma takes the place of a missing conjunction, which is not necessarily the case (Byington 22). Comma associated with introductory elements, which will be discussed later, have nothing to do with conjunctions. I dare anyone to find a conjunction that could replace a comma after such an element. Two, the purpose of this rule, in my opinion, is to signal that what follows is an independent clause. This can become important if the writer wishes to emphasize a subject change. For example, if I left the comma out of "I opened the door, and a miniature Superman held out his bag for candy," the reader might think I was opening a miniature Superman in addition to the door until s/he read the rest of the sentence. The comma helps to eliminate that misunderstanding. And three, the only structure that seems to offend this anti-comma movement is the "comma and." In both Boles' argument and an illustration given by Steven T. Byinton, the debate over "comma + conjunction" does not extend beyond and (David W. Boles' Urban Semiotic; "Certain Fashions in Commas and Apostrophes" 22). This makes no sense. If people wish to assert that comma means conjunction, the least they could do is be consistent about it.

To recap then, commas are used before coordinating conjunctions, provided the latter connects two independent clauses.

Serial Expressions

There are two kinds of serial expressions: series and coordinate adjectives. A series consists of three or more items, and—whether they be nouns, adjectives, verbs, or clauses—need a comma between each item, even before the and (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 214).

-My pets include two black labs, two green iguanas, one regal cat, and an often forgotten chubby frog. (a series of noun phrases)

-Jack's singing voice is full, deep, and smooth. (a series of adjectives)

-Her accomplishments included cutting her thumb open on a volleyball, catching at every opportunity a basketball with her face, slicing her leg with a bowling ball, and somehow beating the gym teacher in badminton. (a series of verb phrases)

-The child ran after the rooster, Jenni chased after the child, and the dog scampered after Jenni. (a series of clauses)

As you can see, a series most commonly uses and to connect the three or more items, but occasionally, or may take its place, as seen in "whether they be nouns, adjectives, verbs, or clauses" from above. Also occasionally, a series may contain commas within each item. In that case, use a semicolon between each item (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 214).

-Sera, a girl of ten; Monkey, her over-sized stuffed gorilla; and Magic, her golden retriever, could no longer share a bed.

Notice the particular pattern of comma, semicolon, comma, semicolon, comma, comma. A comma finishes off the last appositive, "her golden retriever," before the verb begins. If this were "Sera, Monkey, and Magic could no longer share a bed," there would not be a comma between the last item in the series (Magic) and the verb phrase (could share). However, because "her golden retriever" is a non-restrictive phrase (meaning it provides information that is unessential to understanding the meaning of the sentence), another comma is needed to separate the phrase from the verb. This will be discussed more extensively later.

Strunk and White mention two exceptions to series comma. First, in business names, the comma before the and is often omitted, as you may notice on the door of any law firm or publishing house (2). Second, when writing a series that includes etc, omit the and and add a comma after the abbreviation (3).

-All toys, games, etc, should be put away if you don't want them thrown away.

Like the debate over commas before a coordinating conjunction, there is also a movement to omit the last comma in a series because, after all, the "conjunction is already expressed" (Byington 22). But also like the "comma conjunction" structure, the omission of a serial comma leaves a lot of room for confusion. Take, for example, this sentence:

-The remote, bits of stale potato chips and pennies can be found behind your couch cushions.

Are the pennies in bits or are they whole? For that matter, are they stale like the potato chips? One would assume the pennies are whole and that staleness does not apply, but the lack of a comma before and does not indicate pennies is its own item. Here is another example:

-Zeke's favorite foods include Fruit Loops, macaroni and cheese and pizza.

The and between cheese and pizza is not enough of a separation to indicate "macaroni and cheese" is its own food. As it stands, it appears Zeke likes macaroni and cheese with his pizza. Thus, commas separate items in a series so the reader doesn't have to.

Commas also separate coordinate adjectives, which are two or more adjectives (or adjective phrases) that separately modify the same noun (Hacker 262). But unlike a series, no and is used. For example,

-His resounding, crackling cough silenced the assembly.

-Hoodlums mark their territories with large, colorful, pointy letters.

-The boisterous, heavily perfumed woman was asked to leave the store. (In this sentence, heavily perfumed is an adjective phrase, perfumed being an adjective and heavily being an adverb that modifies it.)

Just because there are two+ adjectives in front of a noun, however, does not mean they need to be separated by commas.

-Little Isaac didn't realize that the pretty yellow bird feather could carry mites.

-Do you know the story of the three blind mice?

What makes the adjectives in these two sentences different from the three above? The adjectives in these two sentences do not act separately and do not need commas. The story of three mice is drastically different than the story of three blind ones, and the pretty bird feather Isaac found was yellow, not just any color. The cough, however, could be described as resounding or crackling without referring to a different cough, and therefore both adjectives act separately.

How can one tell if the adjectives act separately? "Self-Teaching Unit: Major Comma Uses" mentions two tests to determine if the adjectives are coordinate. First, replace the comma with an and (Benner). Can you say, "three and blind mice" or "pretty and yellow bird feather?" You could if English were your second language. These do not need commas. But native English speakers can say, "resounding and crackling cough" without sounding silly, and a comma is needed. Second, reverse the adjectives (Benner). "Blind three mice" is definitely out, and so is "yellow pretty bird feather." No commas, and please reverse them back. But "large, pointy, colorful letters" sounds as natural as "large, colorful, pointy letters." Do use commas.

Although the first test could prove unhelpful, the second test is frequently unreliable. For example, Paula LaRocque uses the second rule with "a long, boring meeting," which as you can see, does need a comma, but she asserts that long and boring can be reversed and still make sense ("Use Comma Sense When Constructing Stories"). I disagree. I have yet to hear a business person complain of a "boring, long meeting." It would seem there is a natural word order for coordinate adjectives, one which the reversal test fails to acknowledge. You can bypass most of this by knowing that adjectives aside from colors and numbers generally do not need a comma. If you find yourself in doubt, use the first test to determine the necessity of a comma and leave it at that.

Introductory Expressions

When a word, phrase, or clause opens a sentence—whether it be a conjunctive adverb, transitional phrase, adjectival phrase, prepositional phrase, non-finite phrase, or dependent clause—a comma should generally separate it from the rest of the sentence. Conjunctive adverbs are those that tie the following clause to a previous utterance (Blue). Common conjunctive adverbs include besides, consequently, finally, however, nevertheless, next, still, then, therefore, and thus, in addition to ordinal numbers and adverbs based on them (firstly, secondly, etc). These can fall at the beginning of a sentence.

-Jason constantly tells her that pigs are cleaner animals than chickens. Nevertheless, she refuses to eat pork.

Or they can attach a clause to a sentence with a semicolon before and a comma after (Hacker 274; Weinhold).

-Jason constantly tells her that pigs are cleaner animals than chickens; nevertheless, she refuses to eat pork.

They can also appear in the middle of a clause, in which case the conjunctive adverb is set off by commas (Hacker 265).

-She, nevertheless, refuses to eat pork.

As I mentioned, most conjunctive adverbs require a comma, but there are a few exceptions. A comma seldom follows then, and it only follows others—like also, at least, indeed, and therefore—when there is need for a pause (Hacker 266). Ordinal numbers are also an exception in that when they appear in the middle of a clause, no commas surround them ("Punctuating the Conjunctive Adverb in Simple Compound Sentences").

-The tom first stretched his front paws.

I have noticed that conjunctive adverbs then, next, and finally function the same way.

Transitional phrases are similar to conjunctive adverbs; in fact, the only difference is the former consists of actual phrases while the latter are single words. Common transitional phrases include after all, for example, in addition, in conclusion, in fact, and on the other hand (Hacker 275). These follow the same punctuation rules as conjunctive adverbs and can appear at the beginning of clauses

-On the contrary, Diana made the cake herself.

attached to another clause

-He is allergic to Red 40; in fact, if a drop of Hawaiian Punch spills on his hand, he breaks out in hives.

or in the middle of a clause

-Dogs are, after all, the most reliable companions.

Transitional phrases, however, appear to be more consistent with their commas. There is the rare exception, but for the most part, the two are bound together.

An adjectival phrase that opens a clause always requires a comma after it (Blue).

-Hungry, the cat made figure eights around her owner's legs.

-Tired of taking notes, Grant lay his head down on the desk.

Like adjectivals, non-conjunctive adverbials that begin and modify a clause also require a comma, but they must modify the entire clause. Adverbs that modify only the verb do not usually require a comma (Blue).

-Ironically, the man died the day after he won the lottery.


-Silently the leopard stalked her prey.

Ironically modifies the whole clause whereas silently does not.

Many grammars leave out a class of adverbials that often open clauses. These are noun phrases acting as adverbs, and English, I have noticed, has a lot of them: tomorrow, yesterday, last/next week, last/next year, last/next month, etc. One-word phrases generally do not require a comma while longer phrases do.

-Tomorrow I will finish this paper.


-Yesterday afternoon, Aaron threw his sippy cup across the kitchen.

The lack of written discussion, however, makes the rule a difficult one to assess.

Often acting as adverbials, prepositional phrases that open clauses most often require comma (University of Minnesota).

-In today's society, fairy tales do little else but entertain.

-During my life time, the cursive alphabet has changed five times, particularly the Q.

An exception to that are short prepositional phrases. A comma with these is optional (Benner).

-In time you will learn the difference between justice and vengeance.

Non-finite phrases that open a clause always require a comma and can take three forms: present participial, past participial, and infinitive (Hacker 261; Benner).

-Crawling out of bed, Bethany stubbed her toe on the night stand. (present participial phrase)

-Painted a yellow-green, the front porch was hideous. (past participial phrase)

-To use a computer, one must have a great deal of patience. (infinitive phrase)

When working with non-finite phrases, be sure that they are truly introductory phrases and not the subject (Purdue University Online Writing Lab). Non-finite phrases as subjects happen more often than you might think, and when they do, a comma does not follow them.

-Skiing a steep slope, Jeremy became sidetracked and crashed into a snow drift. (present participial phrase as an introductory expression)


-Skiing a steep slope requires constant analysis of the terrain that lies ahead (Rehyansky). (non-finite as subject)

Finally, like non-finite phrases, dependent (aka subordinate) clauses that open a sentence always require commas (University of Minnesota). In case you have forgotten them, some common subordinating conjunctions are after, as if, because, before, how, if, once, since, so that, unless, until, when, where, and while (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 41).

-If I were a superhero, I would want the power to see spider webs.

-Because I threw her out into the rain, the wet cat decided to dry off in my lap.

-Until he broke his hand, Ben played the piano every Saturday.

Please note, however, that when a dependent clause appears at the end of an independent clause, no commas are needed (Benner).

-Jesse watched with amused interest while the dog chased its tail.

One final note: When an introductory expression follows a coordinating conjunction, do not put a comma between the two, only after the introductory expression ("Rules for Comma Usage").

-She saw it coming, but before she could react, the golf ball clipped her jaw.

But, the coordinating conjunction, follows a comma since it links two sentences, and the dependent clause (before she could react) precedes a comma because it is an introductory element. A comma, however, does not separate but and before.

Parenthetical Expressions

When a word or phrase is nonessential to the meaning of the clause it inhabits and could easily be omitted, it is called a parenthetical expression (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 219). There are five types: interjections, direct addresses, contrasted elements, adverbials, and absolute phrases. Interjections are perhaps the easiest example of nonessential elements, and includes the mild—ah, aw, hey, oh, ouch, well, wow etcand the colorful, of which you probably don't need a list (Hacker 267; School House Rock). Interjections generally appear at the beginning of clauses, but some can occupy the middle. Wherever they are located, they are set off by commas (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 221).

-Ah, I see you two have already met.

-Times are, well, hard for everyone.

Most grammars don't bother to mention this, but often interjections build on one another, in which case a comma can either set off each interjection or all of them at once. It depends on how much emphasis you want to place on which word.

-Oh, expletive, I forgot my homework. (emphasis on & with a slight pause before the colorful interjection)

-Oh expletive, the refrigerator leaked again. (emphasis on both and no pause before the colorful interjection)

You could also place an exclamation point after the interjection to indicate stronger feelings. Of course, then you wouldn't need a comma (School House Rock).

-Hey! That's my wallet! Thief!

Yes and no, though perhaps not interjections, are punctuated the same way.

-Yes, Amanda died her hair neon green.

-No, it didn't upset her mother.

Direct addresses are also treated as parenthetical expressions. Whether the name belongs to a person or an animal, set it off in commas, but only if the name in question is being spoken to (University of Minnesota).

-Katy, stop scratching the carpet! (The speaker is sternly addressing the animal)

-Todd graduated first in his class. (Todd is not spoken to in this sentence)

Although it is often left out of grammars, the person to whom one writes a friendly letter is being addressed; thus the "Dear Mr. President" at the top of your perhaps not-so-friendly letter would be followed by a comma.

Contrasted elements are also parenthetical expressions. They provide—as their name suggests—a contrast against some part of the clause and are easily identified by the words not, never, and unlike (Hacker 267).

-Unlike some people she can name, Diana eats everything in front of her, including her boyfriend's food.

-Gavin likes to write fantasy, not non-fiction.

Adverbials acting parenthetically (called disjuncts) can take a variety of forms: single adverbs, infinitive phrases, prepositional phrases, even whole clauses. All require commas (Algeo 133).

-Admittedly, Shadow isn't as smart as some dogs, but he is a loyal friend. (single adverb)

-The woman, to be blunt, is a vociferous cow. (infinitive phrase)

-In my opinion, all puppets should be confiscated and burned. (prepositional phrase)

-Your house, if I may say so, needs some repair. (subordinate clause)

Finally, absolute phrases consist roughly of a noun phase plus a participial phrase and appear either at the beginning or at the end of a clause. Because they modify the entire clause, they need to be set off by commas (Hacker 266).

-The years of love forgotten, the couple filed for a divorce.

-David searched for his hat, the wind having blown it off his head the moment he stepped out the front door.

Non-restrictive Expressions

Any phrase or clause that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence is a non-restrictive expression and requires commas. These include appositives, prepositional and participial phrases, and relative clauses. Appositives are noun phrases that rename another noun phrase (Morenberg 232). Whether or not an appositive is restrictive depends your meaning.

-My black lab Jazzy has arthritis. (Jazzy is not the only lab I have)

-My cat, Katy, thinks she is the ruling monarch of the household. (I only have one cat and am simply throwing in the name)

Do not confuse appositives with parts of a title. Although "Rules for Comma Usage" doesn't point it out, the reason phrases like "College President Ira Rubenzahl" do not contain commas is that structures like "College President" are titles (along with Dr., Mr., President, Senator, etc) and a comma should not separate them from the names that follow. If, however, a title follows a name, it should be set off with commas (Hacker 268).

-Heather Branch, PhD, is the new English professor.

Strunk and White suggest an exception to that rule, stating that Jr. should been seen as a restrictive element—for it obviously differentiates the son from the father—and does not require commas (3). I assume this also applies to Sr.

Although names are perhaps the most common form of appositive, they are not the only form.

-The wool of a llama, a pack animal from the Andes Mountains, is actually called alpaca. (this phrase simply renames llama and is not necessary to the sentence)

-Benjamin Franklin's desire to make the turkey our national emblem was not received well. ("to make the turkey our national emblem" was not Franklin's only desire in life and does not require commas)

-Iris' hobby, collecting antique books, takes up a lot of room in her house. (Iris only has one hobby, so commas are necessary)

Notice the appositive in the first sentence is a noun phrase, an infinitive phrase in the second, and a present participial phrase in the third.

Participial phrases, however, can modify a noun without being an appositive. When nonrestrictive, they and prepositional phrases require commas. (Benner).

-Janet, watching the clouds speed angrily across the sky, did not see the hole until she tripped over it. (Janet is still Janet whether or not she is watching the angry clouds)

-The mouse, with its nose quivering, scurried from the underbelly of the stove. (to understand the sentence, it is not necessary to know the mouse's nose is quivering)

If, on the other hand, the phrase is nonrestrictive, it does not require commas (Benner).

-The girl falling down the stairs is the pastor's daughter. (there could be hundreds of girls on the stairs; "falling down the stairs" indicates a specific one)

-The penguin with the crippled flipper is bullied by the others. ("with the crippled flipper" indicates which is the bullied penguin)

This rule also applies to prepositional phrases beginning with including and such as. When they are non-restrictive, set them off with commas. When they are restrictive, they do not require commas.

-Samantha plans to visit may places in Europe, including Madrid, Versailles, and Rome. (non-essential information to the sentence, non-restrictive)

-Cultures such as the Aztec have given early societies a reputation for violence and blood-thirsty sacrifice. (indicates a certain type of cultures, restrictive)

Relative clauses can also function as non-restrictive expressions. These are clauses that modify a noun by indicating "which one" or "what kind" and begin with one of five relative pronouns: that, who, whom, whose, and which (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 38). When a relative clause is non-restrictive, it requires commas, but if it relays vital information, it does not.

-The shamrock, which has three leaflets, is not the national symbol of Ireland. ("which has three leaflets" is information that bears no relevance to the main clause)

-People who have beaten cancer are an inspiration to those still suffering from the illness. ("who have beaten cancer" indicates that only certain people are an inspiration)

In a relative clause, that is fickle and may not always be expressed. When this is the case, the relative clause is generally restrictive—no commas necessary.

-The pants I wore one fateful day to Chemistry Lab are now holey. (an invisible that can be placed between pants and I)

In dealing with non-restrictive expressions, you may encounter a phrase or clause with commas already in it. In that case, set it off with dashes instead of commas (University of Minnesota).

-We buried the time capsule—containing a thumb drive, motorcycle helmet, poster of Jack Sparrow, etc—in the school courtyard.

Expressions with Direct Quotations and Technical Details

With quotations, the rules are less flexible than with other expressions. If a quotation is introduced in a clause, set it off with commas.

-He clicked the remote angrily at the TV and growled, "Why won't you show something worth watching?"

If a quotation is interrupted by a dialogue tag before it makes a complete sentence, surround the tag with commas.

-"I have this strange feeling," Adam whispered to Joe, "that we're not alone in this house."

But if the quotation makes a complete sentence before it is interrupted, use one comma and a period.

-"I'm tired of walking," Lily whined. "Let's hitchhike."

Quotations that end in a dialogue tag and are not followed by more quotations receive the same punctuation. If the quote is introduced by an expression other than a dialogue tag, do not use commas ("Rules for Comma Usage" all).

-According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, one is encouraged to always carry a towel because it is "the most massively useful thing an intersteller hitchhiker can have" (Adams 21).

The best way to learn comma rules for quotations, as "Rules for Comma Usage" suggests, is to read—short stories, novels, periodicals, anything published will do. Most published writers adhere to these rules, and those who do not have editors who do (No. 6).

When numbers and letters coincide, the rules for comma use are practically set in stone. When dates appear "month + date + year," commas are needed to separate the numbers. Any other form of date-telling does not require commas (Hacker 267).

-September 7, 2009, is the date of the wedding.

-September 7 is the date of the wedding.

-September 2009 will hopefully be a nice month for a wedding.

In addresses, a comma separates the street from the city, the city from the state, and if there is no zip code following, the state from the rest of the sentence (Hacker 268).

-Her address is 886 Cedar Street, Dannersby, Kentucky 68404.

-Cleveland, Tennessee, is quickly becoming a major city.

Cities and countries are punctuated the same way ("Rules for Comma Usage").

-Istanbul, Turkey, used to be Constantinople.

Finally, numbers with more than four digits almost always use commas to separate thousands, millions, billions, etc. Numbers with four digits can go either way: 7,300 or 7300 (Hacker 268).

Expressions with Comma Splices

Among student papers, the comma splice—in which a comma improperly joins two independent clauses—is probably the greatest cause of the innocent spilling of red ink. English professors rail against them, and students heedlessly continue to use them. Whether professors like it or not, however, there are instances in which comma splices are a legitimate means to connect independent clauses.

Commas connect tag questions, which generally consist of a subject and a finite verb (the elements of an independent clause), to another independent clause.

-You're going rafting with us this summer, aren't you?

Commas also connect "tag statements," which are essentially tag questions without the question (Klinck 96).

-She and I are two different people, you know. Just because she likes dark chocolate doesn't mean I have to.

But the most panic-inducing use of comma splices is joining two or more clauses. Think of the proverbial "I came, I saw, I conquered." There are two rules that allow that sentence to exist in its current, "incorrect" state. One, the three clauses are short and parallel (each clause takes a similar form), and two, the sentence is not potentially ambiguous. By connecting each clause with a comma, the writer also gains emphasis (Brosnahan 185). Many grammars mention this sort of note or exception, including Strunk and White, who suggest comma splices make for a relaxed, "conversational" tone (7).

Potentially Confusing Expressions

Although a clause may not need a comma according to the rules above, it may still require a comma to prevent confusion. A Writer's Reference gives the example "To err is human; to forgive, divine." In that instance, the comma signals the omission of the verb. A word that sit beside another word as an "echo" also requires a comma before it (Hacker 269).

-Everything that shouldn't happen, happened.

And then there are clauses that desperately need a comma to dictate its meaning (Glenn, Miller, and Webb 221). Consider the sentence from this paper's opening or this one:

-Two days before, he had received a threatening phone call.

Without the comma following before, the reader would probably think this sentence was a fragment that belonged to a previous utterance.

Commas serve the reader. They surround information like the lid on a sippy cup, preventing the meaning from sloshing onto the rest of clause and keeping false interpretations out. But like a toddler, a sentence cannot put the necessary commas in itself. One must take the initiative and seal the lid tightly. Perhaps if our forefathers had been a bit more methodical with their commas, we would not need a group of people to translate the Constitution. We certainly would not be arguing about which "unalienable rights" we can bear. Unfortunately, we cannot change the past, but we can shape the future, preferably with commas in the right places.


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