Tag Archives: commas

Cats and Commas

From my friend Pat in New Jersey. How I love this!

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Commas for Clarity

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Here are some sentences written without commas. On first reading, you likely will be scratching your head. But read each sentence again and put in a comma; instantly, your confusion will be lifted.

  1. Just as we were ready to leave my brother drove up in his new convertible.
  2. While I watched my uncle assembled the ingredients for a salad.
  3. After he shot the arrow always hit the target.
  4. If you can afford to visit New Orleans at Mardi Gras.
  5. They recognized the document was not complete and announced it could not have been given the situation and time.

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How to Punctuate “However”

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Punctuating however depends on where it falls in a sentence.

At the beginning or the end, set it off with a comma:

However, American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever.

American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever, however.

If however occurs in the middle of a sentence, use commas around both sides of the word (see cartoon above):

American presidential campaigns, however, seem to go on forever.

If it comes between two complete sentences you have a couple of choices:

Use a period and a capital letter: American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever. However, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.

Use a semicolon: American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever; however, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.

What you can’t do is put commas around both sides of however:

American presidential campaigns seem to go on forever, however, people are looking for ways to shorten the process.  <———- This is a no-no.

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What’s a Run-On Sentence?

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It’s been my experience that when people see a very long sentence they immediately decide it’s a run-0n. In fact, you can have one sentence comprising thousands of words (even though no one would possibly want this), and it would not be a run-on, as long as it was structured correctly.

A run-on is a complete sentence, no matter how long or short, that is joined to another complete sentence by two different means:

  1. Jim is tall his brother is shorter. Here you have two complete sentences that have nothing to join them. This is the classic run-on.
  2. Jim is tall, his brother is shorter. Here the two sentences are joined by a comma, making what is known as a comma splice, another form of a run-on.

It’s easy to fix run-ons.

  1. You can put a period between the two sentences: Jim is tall. His brother is shorter. With very short sentences like these, using a period may seem a bit simplistic, but it’s not wrong.
  2. You can also use a semicolon between the two sentences, assuming they are closely related in subject matter: Jim is tall; his brother is shorter.
  3. You can add a connecting word: Jim is tall although his brother is shorter.

We most often write run-ons when we’re in a hurry. If we don’t take time to proofread (audibly—quietly so you can hear your own voice—and slowly), chances are we won’t catch them. But our readers may, and it’s best not to let that happen. It may not be fair, but we are often judged by our writing.

 

 

 

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Commas Used With Direct Address

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Direct address is when you use a person’s name or another word to indicate that person (lady, man, dude, jerk, Mom, Dad, pal, dear, darling, etc.). That direct address should be set off with commas:

Hello, Robert.
Sweetheart, I miss you so much.
I’m telling you, Dad, you need to stop working so hard.
Welcome, friend.
Cut it out, idiot!
Yes, Virgina, there is a Santa Claus.

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Commas Between Adjectives—or Not?

When you write a sentence with more than one adjective modifying a noun, it’s sometimes tricky to determine if you need to separate those adjectives with commas. Here are a couple of sentences to consider:

1. Charlotte wants to meet an honest, reliable, considerate man.

Do all those adjectives refer to the noun “man” in the same way? (Yes.) Could you use “and” to connect them? Charlotte wants to meet an honest and reliable and considerate man. You wouldn’t write that, but it makes sense. And you can move those adjectives around with no change in meaning: Charlotte wants to meet a considerate, reliable, honest man.

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2. Ella wore bright yellow, suede flat shoes.

What happens if you stick an “and” between those adjectives? Ella wore bright and yellow and suede and flat shoes. Weird, right? In this case, you can’t move the adjectives around without a change in meaning (or a very odd wardrobe choice): Ella wore suede, and bright and yellow and flat shoes. “Suede” is the adjective that most closely defines the flats. “Bright” modifies the shade of yellow.

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Ten More Commonly Misused Phrases

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Here are some more phrases that sound almost right—but aren’t. Check to see if any belong to you:

  1. For all intensive purposes   It’s for all intents and purposes.
  1. One in the same should be one and the same.
  1. Make due  Nope. You need to make do. Make what you have do what you need.
  1. By in large is by and large.
  1. Do diligence is not something done. You want due diligence.
  1. Peak one’s interest  This has nothing to do with height. It has to do with pique, sharpening your interest.
  1. Shoe in? This has nothing to do with footwear. It’s shoo in, the way you would shoo your cat inside at night.
  1. Extract revenge. Nothing is being removed. You are going to exact revenge.
  1. Doggy-dog world.  You’re describing a highly competitive situation, which is a dog-eat-dog world.

 

  1. Supposably   No such word. You want supposedly.

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What Punctuation Can Tell Us

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A recent article in the New York Times interested me. It discussed ways people are using punctuation in emails, tweets and texts to convey emotion and messages not expressed in words. Let me know if you agree with the author’s conclusions.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/style/when-your-punctuation-says-it-all.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

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What is a Run-On Sentence?

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Often when people write me a very long sentence, they apologize for having created a run-on. In fact, a run-on sentence can be very short: This is a run-on sentence I don’t think it’s grammatical. Here’s another: This is a run-on sentence, I don’t think it’s grammatical.

A sentence is a run-on if it meets one of two conditions:

1. It is two or more complete sentences (which means each one has a subject, a verb and complete meaning) joined together with no punctuation between them (example #1 above).

OR

2. It is those same sentences joined by only a comma (example #2 above).

What you need is either end punctuation between the sentences or else a conjunction after the comma: This is a run-on sentence, and I don’t think it’s grammatical. (Incidentally, it is grammatical.)

In theory, you could have an endless number of complete sentences strung together if they were punctuated correctly, and they would not constitute a run-on. It’s not the length of the sentences, it’s the punctuation that makes them either right or wrong.

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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?

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I found this quiz posted at http://www.ragan.com, written by Laura Hale Brockway . You probably can guess my score (and I’m damned proud of it!).

What kind of word nerd are you?

Step 1. Answer the following yes/no questions. (Be honest. This is a judgment-free zone.)

1. Do you subscribe to one or more style guides (or have one or more style guides on your desk)?

2. Do you catch typos all around you, even when you’re not looking for them?

3. Do you find yourself correcting the grammar in the books you read to your kids? (“Junie B. Jones” is the worst.)

4. Can you quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves?”  [Note from Judi: Yes, but I also wrote to the editor because the book contains about 10 major errors, most not attributable to the author’s English upbringing.]

5. Have you had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial (Oxford) comma?

6. Does seeing 1990’s or 30’s drive you to drink?

7. Do you feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly?

8. Can you spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist” correctly? (Could you have done so before I just showed them to you?)

9. Is the hyphen your least favorite punctuation mark?

10. Do you use the word “decimate” correctly?

11. Do you giggle when you end a sentence with a preposition and know why it’s acceptable to do so?

12. Do people refuse to play Words with Friends or Scrabble with you?

Step 2. Count the questions to which you answered “yes.”

Word Nerd Elite—You answered “yes” to 10 to 12 questions.

You are in the upper echelon of word nerdiness. Very likely you are the primary person in your department or company whom others ask when they have a grammar or punctuation question. You may have even played dueling style guides with a co-worker. Finding typos on signs or in movie credits might feel like a victory for you. Welcome to the club. We meet for drinks every month on penultimate Wednesdays.

Word Nerd Moderate—You answered “yes” to 5 to 9 questions.

You exhibit a few of the telltale signs of word nerdiness. You probably know and use one style guide very well. Though you know the arguments for and against its use, you’re lukewarm on the serial comma. You have a pretty easy time keeping your composure when playing Scrabble.

Word Nerd Lite (or should that be light?)—You answered “yes” to 0 to 4 questions.

Other than one or two minor eccentricities, you’re not really a word nerd at all. You leave it to others to find typos and argue about word usage. Perhaps you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and you remember the joke about the panda. You haven’t quite memorized your style guide, but you have a few key sections highlighted.

Good job!

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That vs. Which

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I’ve used this before but it’s been a while, and I’ve added a short quiz at the end.

Many people think “that” and “which” are interchangeable, but it’s not the case.

One comma rule is that non-essential information is set off by commas:

1. It rained on Sunday, which made skipping the picnic an easy decision.

2. Adam is good at oil painting, which he practices daily.

3. She loves attending NASCAR races, which she really can’t afford to do very often.

In all those sentences, the main information comes before the commas.  You could leave the information after the commas out and your readers would still understand what you have written, even though they might find the information after the commas helpful.  But it is not essential.

Use a comma and “which” to set off non-essential information. You’ll also need a comma at the end of the non-essential information if it comes in the middle of the sentence.

Now let’s look at “that”:

1. It’s a lemon tree that is very close to her kitchen.

2. He drives a car that is 14 years old.

3. They live in the house that his grandfather built in 1920.

In these sentences the information beginning with “that” is essential.  If I just wrote the words before “that,” you’d ask, “What lemon tree?”  “What car?”  “What house?”

Use no comma and “that” to introduce essential information.

Here is a short quiz for you to see if you understand the difference:

1. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House (which/that) is in Chicago is one of his masterpieces and is open to the public.

2. The calendar (which/that) has an enormous butterfly on the front is my favorite.

3. Cadillacs had the biggest fins (which/that) was the style in the 1960s.

 

(Answers: (1) which (and you need a comma not only before which but also after Chicago) (2) that (3) which

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Another Way Commas Are Essential for Meaning

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Another way a comma can clarify your meaning is the following:

Sometimes commas are used to set off non-essential information. By non-essential, I mean that if the words set off by commas were removed, your readers would still fully understand what you mean.

Here are two examples:

1. Let’s eat, Grandma.  If you remove that comma, you are telling your readers that you are a cannibal. But it really isn’t necessary to add “Grandma” because you are obviously speaking directly to her. You are simply saying to her, “Let’s eat.”

2. My ex-husband, Igor, lives in a dungeon. By setting Igor’s name off in commas, you are telling your readers that your ex lives in a dungeon, but it isn’t essential they know his name is Igor. You can remove his name and your readers will still understand your meaning completely. However, if you remove those commas around his name (and leave his name in), you are implying that you have at least one other ex-husband whose name is not Igor and probably does not live in a dungeon.

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Sometimes a Comma Is Essential for Meaning

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I am currently reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for which she won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. I am into only a few chapters of this 700+ page book and enjoying it greatly. However, one sentence stopped me short. In a description of a living room, Tartt includes the following items:

“…silk-shaded lamps burning low, big dark paintings of naval battles and drapes drawn against the sun.”

Without a comma after “battles,” it sounds as if some of the painting were of those drapes. Usually, when items are in a series of three or more, that last comma (known as the Oxford or serial comma) can be omitted. I prefer not to use it: my motto is, “When in doubt, leave it out.” But at times it is needed for clarity. Logic may tell you some of the paintings were not of drapes, but this is an instance where a comma was called for.

Here’s a link to a short video about the Oxford comma:  http://www.wimp.com/oxfordcomma/

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Commas Can Save Lives

A few days ago I received a giggle-inducing present from a business contact who has become a friend. Unfortunately for him, he spends a lot of time flying, but fortunately for me he found this gift in SkyMall Magazine. No, it isn’t a lawn Yeti. This is my  present, now hanging over my desk and making me smile every time I read it:

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I am one grandma who is very grateful for that comma.

 

 
 
 

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This Toilet Won’t Be Getting Much Use

How many disabled, elderly, pregnant children do you know?  Using commas in this sign wouldn’t help. It needs bullet points.  And it would be lovely to eliminate the multiple exclamation points at the end. Such enthusiasm!!!enhanced-buzz-1608-1369835469-8

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Rachael Ray, Cannibal and Dog-Eater?

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Given Rachael Ray’s love for extra-virgin olive oil (or EVOO, as it seems to be called in many parts these days), I’m guessing sautéing was her preferred method of cooking her family and her dog.

Editor! Find your comma stash currently going unused and put a comma after “cooking.” If you’re in the mood to give up another, put it after family. That one is optional. A period at the end would be nice, but magazine covers have a style that eschews them. However, exclamation points are found in abundance!!!!

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What a Difference a Comma Makes

One use of the comma is that it sets off information that may be interesting but is not necessary for the reader to understand the sentence.  That information set off in commas is called “non-essential.”Here are a few examples:

1. My cousin, Juliet, lives in Seattle.

By using commas around her name, you are telling the reader  you have only one cousin and her name happens to be Juliet. If you remove the commas and her name, your readers will understand that you have only one cousin. If you keep her name but remove the commas, you are telling the reader you have more than this one cousin.  How many more?  We don’t know, but Juliet is not the only one.

2. Let’s eat, Eddie, before we pitch our tents.

As written, this sentence is what is called “direct address.” We are speaking directly to Eddie and saying we want to have a meal before we settle in for the night on our camping trip.  If you take those commas out, suddenly this becomes the cannibal camping trip, and Eddie is getting very, very nervous.

3. (X-rated)  Sam helped his brother, Jack, off his horse.

Speak the sentence without the commas.  See how important commas can be?

 

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Comma or No Comma?

This is an easy comma rule:

When you have two complete sentences separated by a conjunction (and, but, or, for, yet), put a comma before that conjunction:

(I wanted to go to the party)but (I wasn’t invited).

 

However, if what follows the conjunction isn’t a complete sentence, don’t use a comma:

 (I wanted to go to the party) but (wasn’t invited).

                           

 

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Appositives

Don’t let this English-teacher term worry you.  All it means is that you refer to something in words different than the ones you just used:

1.  George Washington, Father of his Country, built Mount Vernon.

2.  Paris, the City of Light, is almost deserted in August, when residents go on their vacations.

3.  Hawaii, the Big Island, has an active volcano.

4.  Carolyn, my friend from high school, lives in Montana.

I’ve underlined the appositives in those sentences.  What do you notice about them?  They are all set off by commas on both sides.

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