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Where would we be in lessons on commas if we didn’t point out when NOT to use commas? That’s just as important in writing well as knowing when to use them correctly.
We’ve covered using commas before coordinating conjunctions in earlier lessons (see Commas – The Readers’ Friend – Part I), but not all compound word groups are independent clauses. Unless they are, the use of the comma is incorrect.
Puccini wrote the great Madama Butterfly and later composed the magnificent Turandot, both operas set in the Orient.
Your compound predicate here is wrote and composed.
Jean cleaned the house and set an attractive table for the dinner party.
In this case, your compound predicate is cleaned and set.
No commas connecting two subordinate clauses!
Patrick is far from recognizing that he has a serious spending problem and that he is in danger of having his home repossessed.
And connects two subordinate clauses, both beginning with that.
We’ll cover more next time in our series on unnecessary commas. Until then, have fun writing!
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Do grammar rules make your head ache? Sometimes remembering all the dos and don’ts are enough to make a person crosseyed. But if you want to be read and understood, learning and practicing these rules will become second nature to you and you’ll find yourself zipping right along in your compositions with less agony and more fun.
Think of it this way: mechanics and writers have to have the right tools and know when to use them. Grammar rules are the mechanic’s tools of writing.
Using Commas to Prevent Confusion
We’ve written a lot already about ways in which you can use commas to make the reader your friend. The final technique is using them to prevent confusion.
For instance, to tighten up your writing you may wish to substitute a comma in place of a word or phrase. You can do this without changing the meaning of what you say. In this case, the comma acts as a code signal to tell the reader to provide the missing words mentally.
To face danger squarely is courageous; to falter and run, cowardly.
Words that echo one another in succession may require a comma for ease of reading.
Everybody we thought would win, won.
Grouping for Clarity
Finally, you might need a comma to prevent readers from grouping words together in ways that don’t fit your intended meaning.
Children who can, take forty minutes of exercises in the therapy pool.
In this last example you can see that without the comma, the sentence would be incomplete, leaving the reader scratching his head.
This completes our lessons on correct uses of commas. Thanks for hanging in there with me. If you ever have questions, just visit here to refresh yourself.
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This entire series could be named, “everything you ever wanted to know about commas” since we still have quite a few more instances to cover when you need to use them. Here are a few simple-to-remember instances for today.
Setting Off Direct Quotations
This rule is probably the easiest to remember. Use the comma to separate the quotation from the introductory phrase and use the comma inside the final quotation mark when you start a sentence with a quote.
At a recent speech former governor Sarah Palin gave she declared, “We didn’t elect Republicans to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.”
“Woody stems and shattered limestone rocks poked their way out of the heaving red soil pelted by the spring rains. The steep forest trail was barely visible and promised dangerous slipping toward the creek for the unwary,” he wrote.
Using Commas with Dates, Addresses, Titles, and Numbers
These rules are also easy to remember. Remembering to use them correctly is that invisible polish you put on your work that sets you apart from the many who have no idea how to write in these situations.
Date: Set the year off from the rest of the sentence using a comma after the date and after the year.
The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a day many Americans will never forget.
Exceptions: We always have these, don’t we? If the date is inverted as in military or foreign use, you skip the comma. Also, if only the month and year are given.
When people ask Jim for his birthday, he always says, “17 July 1936.”
The great ice storm that hit southwest Missouri in recent years was late April 2008.
Addresses: Use commas after each element of an address except BEFORE the zip code.
Peter lived in Omaha, Nebraska, in the late 1970s.
The pizza delivery man was looking for Jack Benny at 1503 S. Jefferson, Stillwater, Oklahoma 62803.
Titles: Separate with commas a title following a name from the rest of the sentence.
Philip Newton, M.D., will be our speaker at the Rotary meeting Tuesday.
Jack Jones, Jr., planned this real estate development.
Numbers: Use commas to separate numbers more than four digits long. Group the digits in threes, starting from the right. If a number only has four digits, comma use is optional.
7,500 or 7500
Exceptions: Don’t use commas in street numbers, zip codes, phone numbers, or years.
No commas should be used here: 1607 South 93rd Avenue
or here: 65810 (zip code)
or here: 417-555-8181
or here: 2000 B.C.
That’s it for today. We’ll have a few more pointers on commas in upcoming posts. Until then, happy writing!
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Continuing from the previous post we have further lessons on when to use commas.
After checking out the previous post you can guess the comma rule here:
ALWAYS use commas with nonrestrictive elements.
What’s a “nonrestrictive element?”
A nonrestrictive element is an adjective clause, phrase, or appositive that you can remove from a sentence without changing the meaning. You might lose a little doing it, but people will still understand the meaning of what you’re saying.
Key point: if you’re not sure an element is nonrestrictive, take a look at the context and the meaning you want to get across to the reader.
The tree covered with pale pink blossoms is gorgeous.
The tree, covered with pale pink blossoms, is gorgeous.
The first example, a restrictive adjective phrase, tells readers you are referring to more than one tree, singling out the one with pink blossoms.
The second example conveys additional information about a particular tree so it is nonrestrictive.
Remember: as the writer, you have the last word as to whether an element is restrictive or nonrestrictive. The question to ask is, “Does this sentence convey what I want it to?”
Examples of Nonrestrictive Adjective Clauses:
The downpour, which caused damage to forty homes, filled gullies and streams twenty feet beyond their banks.
The 2011 tsunami, which eradicated entire villages and forever changed the coast of Japan, took tens of thousands of lives.
In the two examples above, the clauses do not restrict the meaning of the nouns downpour and tsunami. You could leave both phrases out of the sentence and the reader would still understand what you mean. That is not to say that the information set off by the commas does not add interest and further useful information to the subject.
Phrases Functioning as Adjectives
Examples of Nonrestrictive Phrases Functioning as Adjectives:
The clouds, roiling and black over the hills, shot fiery bolts between themselves like lovers in a furious quarrel.
The puppy, tossing her squeaky toy up into the air and shaking it wildly, played for an hour before falling asleep in her crate.
In both examples above, the adjective phrases add color, but could be excluded from the sentences and you still would have clarity in the sentence. This makes them nonrestrictive.
Examples of Nonrestrictive Appositives
Jake, the cute little four-year-old among the neighborhood kids, is a budding pianist.
Pike’s Peak, a favorite hiker’s challenge, is 14,115 feet high.
Both examples show nouns already restricted to a specific. The appositives should be set off by commas.
Tip: If you have doubts about whether you are using commas correctly, just read the sentence aloud with and without commas. How does it sound? Which way do your vocal inflections convey the most precise meaning?
The first of two related posts –
Today’s subject involves comma use with adjective clauses, adjective phrases, and appositives. We have so much ground to cover I’m breaking this topic into two posts so nobody gets lost in the technicalities. Perhaps we should call this first part
“One time when you should not use commas.”
As writers, we all want to be read. Part of making our words work is to be purposeful in the tools we use to tell stories, explain things, or editorialize. A couple of great tools are known as restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. In this post we will confine (restrict) ourselves to restrictive elements. 😀
When we restrict something, we set boundaries on it, or limitations. A restrictive element limits the meaning of a noun or pronoun it modifies and is essential to the meaning we are getting across.
Restrictive elements are NEVER set off by commas.
How do you know if a restrictive element is, well…restrictive? That’s easy. If you take it out, the meaning of your sentence becomes more general, leaving out key information your reader needs to make sense out of what you’re writing.
Now, let’s see what some of these clauses look like.
Adjective clauses contain subjects and verbs, but they modify nouns or pronouns. You can recognize them because they begin with either a relative pronoun or relative adverb. Relative pronouns are: who, whom, whose, which, and that. Relative adverbs are where and when.
Examples of Restrictive Adjective Clauses:
Connie worked for a multinational corporation that had subsidiaries in retail natural gas, coal mining, and natural gas pipelines. (Connie works for a large energy corporation with international exposure. See how the specifics of the adjective clause add more interest and are essential to fleshing out her character?)
The woman who was singing tonight is a classmate and good friend of mine. (The adjective clause here qualifies which woman and separates (restricts) her from other performers that evening.)
James dug the pit in the pasture where the ground was softest. (Restricts the place.)
You can see that none of the restrictive clauses here could be left out without losing essential information to the topic and the reader’s comprehension. Separating the clauses with a comma would disrupt the flow.
Phrases Functioning as Adjectives
Occasionally writers want to word a sentence using a prepositional or verbal phrase. If the phrase is essential to the meaning (restrictive), skip the comma.
Remember, adjectives modify nouns and so do adjective phrases. They add color and completeness to writing.
Examples of Restrictive Phrases Functioning as Adjectives:
My grandmother’s attic stored wardrobes and chests gathering dust and cobwebs for years.
The red maple was lit by the sun casting rays so strong the leaves became almost transparent.
In both these examples the adjective phrases are restrictive to the nouns they describe.
Appositives are useful nouns or noun phrases that stand in the place of a nearby noun, explaining the noun further. If you have not used a descriptive adjective or phrase with a noun and you want to give the reader more specifics, you’ll need to use a restrictive appositive.
Examples of Restrictive Appositives
The painting “Water Lilies 11″ is a departure from Monet’s typical blue/green/lavender water lily works.
The essay “The Philosophy of Composition” is a must read for Edgar Allen Poe fans.
You can see in both examples above that the reader wouldn’t know what the writer refers to without specifics. Since “Water Lilies 11″ and “The Philosophy of Composition” are essential to the meaning of the sentence, they are restrictive.
How about taking some of your writing and practicing using restrictive elements?
Welcome to our next topic on using commas. Today we’re looking at using commas to set off introductory word groups.
An introductory word group sets the scene for the rest of the sentence. We use the comma after it to signal a pause before main action – getting the reader ready to discover something important.
Most, but not all, introductory word groups are either clauses or phrases that modify verbs. They function, then, as adverbs, which are single words that modify verbs. These clauses or phrases are writer’s tools to tell readers answers to the when, where, how, or why the main action is happening.
Use a comma after the introductory word group to pause the reader and tell him that he is about to read the main part of the sentence.
By the old stone well house in the glade this morning, we saw a mother skunk with her babies.
Just as I was going out the door, the dog blew right past me to chase a rabbit he saw by the fence.
Exception: If the phrase is short and the reader is in no danger of misreading, you may omit the comma.
At nearly a mile away we heard the crash of the bus and cars.
Halfway up the tree we discovered a robin’s nest with four blue eggs tucked away in a small crotch.
Participial phrases as introductory word groups
One kind of introductory word group is the participial phrase which functions as an adjective. Participial phrases modify (describe) the nouns or pronouns either before or following them. In today’s case, we are looking at those phrases that come before the noun or pronoun.
Present participles of verbs end in -ing. Past participles end in -d, -ed, -n, -en, or -t. Participial phrases contain either present or past participles of verbs, yet they function as adjectives.
Use a comma to separate a participial phrase from the noun it modifies, no matter how short the phrase is. The comma functions as a notice to readers that they are about to discover the person, place, or thing described.
Singing merrily at dawn, the birds woke Jack from his drunken stupor.
Scoured by centuries of water, wind, and sand, the Grand Canyon’s walls speak silent secrets of ancient earth’s formation.
Brighten your writing by using introductory word groups wherever appropriate and remember when and where to use the comma.
Today we continue polishing our ability to use commas correctly by checking the rules for their use with coordinate adjectives. We will also learn about cumulative adjectives and why commas are unnecessary with them.
First, though, let’s define “adjective.” An adjective is a word that modifies (applies a character or property) to a noun.
Take a look at the gray suit over there.
James’ parents gave him a red wagon for his fifth birthday.
Adjectives allow a more complete understanding of a noun. They enliven writing by helping the reader visualize a scene better.
Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives that modify a noun separately. If adjectives can be joined with and, or if they can be written in any order (think scrambled eggs), they are also coordinate. Separate coordinate adjectives with commas.
An ancient, serpentine, sturdy stone wall wound around the property.
Francie is an exuberant, playful puppy.
You can see that in these examples you could connect each adjective with the conjunction and, or write them in any order (scrambled). Each of them could modify the noun all by themselves.
Cumulative adjectives are two or more adjectives that don’t modify a noun separately. They cannot be set off by commas and would sound silly if connected by and.
James’ parents gave him a bright red wagon for his fifth birthday.
Look at that fine beaded silver necklace she’s wearing.
As you can see, these adjectives above don’t modify the nouns separately. A good way to check to see if you need commas – that is, to determine if your adjectives are coordinate or cumulative is to ask yourself:
Do these adjectives modify the noun separately?
Can they be joined with and or scrambled?
If they are not coordinate, they must be cumulative.
Come back again for further lessons on using commas correctly. This little dot-with-tail punctuation mark has many more applications you’re sure to want to know about.
Clarity in writing is paramount. Correct use of commas keeps readers from scratching their heads and trying to sort out what you really meant to say.
Commas in a series
One challenge writers face today is remembering where to place commas when they come to an end of a series. Because different publications use different conventions, you may see commas omitted when you think they should logically be there. This lack of standardization causes confusion for writers and can cause misunderstanding by the reader.
Unless you are instructed otherwise by a publication, separate all items in a series with commas. There. How hard is that?
Carrie and Josh bounced into last night’s pot luck dinner with cheese dip, homemade chips, crockpot chili, and sour cream.
Michael’s classes this semester are English, trigonometry, physics, and East Asian history.
Setting off nouns of direct address
When we write a sentence addressed to someone and use his name, we are directly addressing the person. Use a comma to separate the name from the rest of the sentence.
Tell us, Patrick, where did you get the firecrackers?
Susan, will you help me make the beds today?
Setting off yes and no
Whenever you are answering someone with a yes or no, set these words off by a comma.
Yes, you may go ride your bike for an hour.
No, I don’t think we’ll be able to attend.
Interrogative tags are words addressed to someone that are part of a longer phrase. They turn a statement into a question. Use a comma to separate the interrogative tag from the rest of the sentence.
The play at the Orpheum this week is really good, isn’t it?
Vanessa seems to bring out the best in people, doesn’t she?
Interjections are words used to express surprise or emotion. A mild interjection is the written way of expressing a moderate or neutral level of emotional response to someone. Use a comma to separate the mild interjection from the rest of the sentence.
Oh, I don’t think that will be necessary.
Well, all-terrain vehicles can be a lot of fun, but you have to be careful riding them.
I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post. These are some of the easier applications of the comma. In the next posts, we’ll cover more about this very useful punctuation.
Ready for some more grammar and writing polishing? Today’s post finishes off the apostrophe lessons. It’s one of the more confusing uses of the apostrophe in English so I thought it deserved its own topic.
In the last post we covered the correct and incorrect uses of apostrophes. In English we have two more situations to show the possessive case.
When two or more people own something
The way you show this in writing is to attach the apostrophe only to the second individual’s name.
Take a look at Bill and Mary’s vegetable garden. It’s turning into a jungle!
Todd and Anna’s hopes for pregnancy were once again dashed.
A compound noun is two or more words joined to make a single noun. Sometimes they are hyphenated and sometimes not. Compound nouns may indicate relationships, properties or qualities of a thing or person, what something does or is made of, when or where something occurs or is.
hyphenated compound nouns: mother-in-law, self-interest, editor-in-chief
relationships: mother-in-law, sister-in-law
properties/qualities: blackboard, tilt-table or tilt table, peashooter, rockpile
when/where something occurs/is: night blooming Cereus, window sill
Apostrophes and Compound Nouns
When you are using a compound noun, use –‘s (or -s’) with the last part of the noun.
Somebody stole my father-in-law’s motorbike and he’s in a really bad mood.
The window sill’s paint is chipped.
The students ruined the blackboard’s finish.
Keep watch over those pesky apostrophes to make the best impression with your writing. They are little details that matter.
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How many times have you seen “your” and “you’re” misused in emails, internet articles, newspapers, and other writing? For me, it’s too many to count.
“Your” is a possessive pronoun indicating ownership.
How is your dog doing after her surgery?
Your new car rides smoothly.
Where did you get your camping gear?
Your yard looks great.
***This is the only context in which “your” is used correctly in English.***
“You’re”, on the other hand, is a contraction. That’s why we see an apostrophe in the word. It’s a combination of the personal pronoun “you” and the verb “are”. The “a” in “are” is replaced by the apostrophe giving us the word “you’re”.
Let’s go to Zaziki’s the next time you’re here.
When you’re going to the auto dealership, would you stop and pick up some cheese at the grocery store?
You’re really bugging me today!
Never, never, never depend on spell or grammar check in computer programs because the mistake in usage will get through. You must proofread your work carefully. Ask yourself,
Do I mean to indicate ownership when I type “your”? If so, great.
Otherwise, ask yourself,
Do I mean to say “you are”? If so, be sure you write “you’re”.
We can chalk up a lot of the confusion when writing these two words to the fact that they are homonyms. They sound alike, but we spell them differently and they, of course, have different meanings.
Be on your toes to catch these grammar errors in your writing so you’re looked upon as a savvy communicator!
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