Category Archives: commas

Oh Comma All Ye Faithful: Commas, Again!

You already know that a comma is used to set off a parenthetical elaboration, as in

“Smoke on the Water,” a song by Deep Purple, has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in the history of rock and roll.

In this case, “a song by Deep Purple” does not add to the meaning of the sentence; rather, it gives more information about its subject, which is the song.   I almost never see these commas omitted in people’s writing, which is a good thing!  Our English teachers would be proud of us all.

However, there are times in similar sentences when those commas are used but incorrect.  Take this sentence:

Honolulu mayor, Mufi Hanneman, is a graduate of Harvard University.

People often put commas around “Mufi Hanneman” because they elaborate (or give more information about) the “Honolulu mayor” part of the sentence.  However (and skip these next two sentences if grammatical mumbo-jumbo confuses you), in this case, the subject of the sentence is Mufi Hanneman and “Honolulu mayor” modifies THAT.  In the first sentence, “a song by Deep Purple” modifies (and comes after) “Smoke on the Water.”

Using commas to offset Mufi Hanneman in the example above is kind of like using commas in this sentence:

A beautiful red, pickup truck, is one of my fondest memories of college.

So how can you tell when you need those commas and when you don’t?  One quick trick is to REMOVE the words between the commas and see if the sentence still makes sense!  Check this out:

“Smoke on the Water” has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs in the history of rock and roll.

Honolulu mayor is a graduate of Harvard University.

Because we took the stuff between commas out of the first sentence and it still makes sense, those words really were a parenthetical phrase and therefore should be set between commas.  Because the second sentence makes NO sense without the words between commas, we know that those words were not a parenthetical phrase.  Put the words back, but leave the commas out!

Occasionally, you’ll see a sentence like this:

My sister Catalina is difficult to get along with.

Does Catalina need to be between commas or not?  Without Catalina, the sentence still makes sense:  My sister is difficult to get along with.  According to the advice I just gave you, then, you’d need to put commas around Catalina, right?

Wrong.  This is one of those weird things about commas.  Sometimes, the choice is yours.  Because Catalina is a small word that doesn’t mess up the flow of the sentence when we don’t use the commas, you can actually skip it.  It’s not wrong to use the commas, but if a sentence can be just as good without the commas, you are better off not using them.  Most of us use commas too often anyway.  Now, if your sister’s name were Catalina Magdalena Hobblesteiner Wobbleiner Hogan Logan Bogan, as in that great campfire song, you would definitely want to use the commas!

Comma Chameleon: The Serial Comma, Part One

You already know that items in a series should be separated by commas:

I enjoy hiking, swimming, and writing.

That last comma, after “swimming,” is generally considered optional. This is often how you’ll see the same sentence:

I enjoy hiking, swimming and writing.

Both of the example sentences above are considered correct, but it is a good habit always to include the last comma in a series. Your sentences will never be incorrect if you include it, but they will sometimes be confusing if you leave it out. Take a look at this example:

The concert included hits by Loggins and Messina, Simon and Garfunkel and Hall and Oates.

Unless Paul, Art, Daryl, and John had a kind of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice thing going on, it might be difficult to tell exactly what was performed at the concert!

So go ahead and expend that extra effort it takes to add that final serial comma! Your audience will thank you, if it notices at all!