by Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh: President, Word Branch Media
Due to a move to another state, it’s been a while since I posted a blog, and I feel rootless. Because there’s a lot of chaos in my life right now, I feel the need for structure . . . and . . . rules. I once had a computer-tech major tell me that the reason that he didn’t like studying writing was that language is “capricious” (look it up!). Students sometimes feel we, by “we” I mean English teachers, are making it up as we go along. Writing is neither capricious or made up; there are some pretty hard-core rules, and I find this comforting when I feel like the rest of my life is out of control.
So I thought I’d blog about my favorite set of usage rules: commas. I am very well aware that this is not fascinating stuff to the majority of the planet, so when I do my comma lecture in class, I always watch for the tell-tale signs that I’m losing my audience like eyes glazing over and sneaking peeks at cell phones. When I begin to see that I’m losing my most attentive students, I cut it short and switch to something fun for a while. Since I can’t see you stealthily backing away from your computer, I’ll keep it brief, and I’ll post a fun break at the end of the blog. I’ll also keep it to just one usage of commas, and save the others for another day. So stay right where you are and pay attention. It will hardly hurt at all, and it’s good for you!
Let me first debunk the most insidious rumor about commas: you insert one when you need to take a breath. That would mean that long-distance runners would use fewer commas than heavy smokers—right? Well, it’s not quite that capricious. You first need to go back to Mrs. Smith’s third grade class and dredge up some of those old terms you thought you’d never have to use again. A full sentence (an independent clause) is made up of two parts of speech: a verb and a subject. A verb, as you know from third grade, is an action word: to run, to sleep, to be, etc. A subject is a noun (person place or thing) that is doing the action. Therefore, “I walk” is an independent clause. If I wrote “I walk the dog,” dog would be the object (the noun that has the action done to it), but an object isn’t needed to make an independent clause; it just makes it easier to understand and often to flow better.
So let’s take two independent clauses: I went to the store. And: I bought bread. As two sentences, they sound choppy, so to improve the flow, I might want to “glue” them together. If I joined them together without punctuation (I went to the store I bought bread), it would be a run-on sentence. If I joined these two independent clauses together with a comma (I went to the store, I bought bread) it would be called a comma splice. Think of a comma as white glue trying to hold together two heavy objects; it wouldn’t hold very well.
I could do several things to fix my sentence. I could use a semi-colon, the super glue of punctuation: I went to the store; I bought bread. However, that’s a little too dramatic for this very functional sentence. Because they are both independent clauses, I need more glue. I can use a comma and a conjunction (and): I went to the store, and I bought bread. If I wanted to make this a simpler sentence and take the focus off of “I,” I can lose a subject, and now my sentence would be an independent clause (I went to the store) and a dependent clause or fragment (bought bread). Now I don’t need as much glue, so I can leave out the comma: I went to the store and bought bread. Got it?
It would hurt me deeply to think that you are out there playing solitaire instead of breathlessly consuming my grammatical wisdom, so I prefer to think of you eagerly awaiting your reward for paying rapt attention, so here it is: http://freerice.com. It’s fun; its language related, and you can do a good deed as well. And please note my correct use of semi-colons and comma in that sentence.
Reposted from May 25, 2008
Although you may use this advice freely, the writing is copyrighted and may not be used without the express permission of Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh. Email me firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
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