Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Grammar: Commas, commas everywhere

A comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence, sometimes with disastrous or life-saving consequences. For instance:

Czarina Maria Fyodorovna once saved the life of a man by transposing a single comma in a warrant signed by her husband, Alexander III, which exiled a criminal to imprisonment and death in Siberia. On the bottom of the warrant the czar had written: `Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia.' The czarina changed the punctuation so that her husband's instructions read: `Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.' The man was set free.

One book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the no nonsense approach to punctuation, is a prime example. Move the comma and change the meaning of the sentence.

Eats, shoots and leaves. You just know someone is getting shot after dinner.

Eats shoots and leaves. Without the comma, it is apparent whatever is described, in this case a panda bear, has specific dietary needs.

Simply put, commas can create havoc or make things clearer and easier to read. That's what Shakespeare intended when, as the story goes, the comma came into use during his time to help actors deliver their lines without muddling the meaning. A pause -- and that is what a comma indicates -- can be dramatic, pregnant or clear as crystal, conferring emotional weight.

We will take this slowly and give you a few things to remember, but by the time we are done, you will have a firmer grasp of commas. Let's start with the easy bits first.

Essential and non-essential

1) My sister, in the red dress, is very much the clothes hound. (The red dress is not essential to the meaning.)

2) My sister in the red dress is very much the clothes hound. (I am pointing out one of two sisters, so the red dress is essential to the meaning.)

Closely tied and not closely tied

1) My brother Jimmy has two daughters and a son (closely tied)

2) Shadow, the black cat I adopted, liked to sleep on the desk when I worked at the computer. (not closely tied)

In the first sentence the name is needed to identify the word, brother. In the second sentence, Shadow is not needed to identify the black cat I adopted.

Series and connected words

This is a simple one. For writers, it often depends on the publication as to which rule is used.

1) The patient complained of vomiting, nausea, chills, fever, rigors, aches, and pain. This is a common one for me and I abide by the rules for the company, the hospital and the style guide for medical transcription, and thus a comma is used before the last word int he series.

2) Your chores today include washing the dishes, laundry, vacuuming, dusting and washing the windows. Leaving out the comma before the and and the last word in the series is the most common usages. This does change with some publications, so check their guidelines and check the listed style guide.

The use or lack of a comma in a series depends entirely on style guides, of which there are several, and space constraints. Some publications don't want a comma before the last item in a series and some do. The difference came about when publications conserving space deleted the last comma. In writing, more often than not, the last comma is left out and its use considered subjective. It's best to check first, especially when writing for professional magazines, papers or newspapers just to be sure. In this case, the lack or use of a comma doesn't change anything, but the look. The meaning is intact either way.

So ends our first foray into the world of the comma.

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