Wednesday, November 9, 2011

When I read it, I breathed, so I must need a comma.

Though this rule sometimes applies, a lot of people are long winded while others are quick winded (totally made up that term), so the poor comma might feel either neglected or abused. Neither option is very fair to the sweet, helpful, wonderful comma.

Let's talk about all many of the places (truly, too many to cover in one post) we use the versatile comma.

Place #1: Include commas after introductory words or phrases (sentence parts which cannot stand alone because they miss a subject/verb combination).
  • Introductory word: Unfortunately, you smell like feet. 
  • Introductory phrase: With a look of regret on her face, my dog cowered in the corner after she urinated all over the rug. 
  • Introductory phrase #2: Just for the record, cleaning up a trail of urine is worse than cleaning up a puddle of pee.
Note: Be careful with these introductory phrases. You don't want to misplace them unless you actually mean "Eating poop, my dad scolded the dog" and not "My dad scolded the dog eating poop." I certainly hope your dad is not a poop eater. Ew.

Place #2: Include commas after a subordinate clause only if the subordinate clause comes at the beginning of the sentence. People frequently break this rule, so pay close attention.
  • Correct: After they randomly planked on their desks, my brilliant students decided it was time to start their vocabulary tests. 
  • Incorrect: My brilliant students decided it was time to start their vocabulary tests, after they randomly planked on their desks. (Again, you do not actually want that red comma.)
  • NOTE: If the part of the sentence which cannot stand alone (subordinate clause) comes FIRST, you need a comma. If it comes at the end of a sentence, you do NOT need a comma.
Place #3: Include a comma between two independent clauses only if a coordinating conjunction follows it. (I'll provide a list of coordinating conjunctions.)
  • Correct: Kevin had a 7% in my class, so he began fabricating stories to explain why he didn't have assignments. Apparently, he thought I was stupid enough to believe that rapscallions attacked a bagel shop, and he needed to use his vocabulary flashcards as throwing stars. 
  • Why is it correct? In the correct sentence, what comes before the red font is a complete sentence (Kevin had a 7% in my class); what comes after the red font is also a complete sentence (he began fabricating stories...). Therefore, you need to invite our friend, the comma, to the party. The comma goes before the conjunction. 
  • NOTE: Some misguided souls place the comma after the conjunction. YO! The comma is supremely awesome, so it goes before the conjunction.
  • Incorrect: Kevin ate too many beans, and stunk his classmates out of the computer lab.
  • Why is it incorrect? What comes before the blue font is a complete sentence, but what comes after the blue font is NOT a complete sentence. It's just one sentence. What do I mean? I mean, this sentence has one subject (Kevin) and two verbs (ate and stunk) to go with that one subject. Because you cannot split the sentence into two sentences, you do not want a comma before and. 
  • Moral of the story? If you can make two complete sentences with what comes before the conjunction and what comes after the conjunction, then put a comma before the conjunction. If you cannot make two complete sentences, because you're missing a second subject, then you do not need the comma. (Hey, commas need naps just like we do.) 
 The list of Coordinating Conjunctions spells out FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

Place #4: Between multiple adjectives describing the same noun (if you're not using the conjunction and).
  • Correct: You, my swaggerific, dirty friend, are my hero. 
  • Why is it correct? Lists need commas. I provided a (short) list of adjectives for my friend, so I needed to separate that small list with a comma. Yes, you can add a third adjective: You, my swaggerific, dirty, bombastic friend, are my hero.
  • Incorrect: You are swaggerific (new teenage colloquialism), and dirty (apparently a new teenage way of actually complimenting someone/something). 
  • Why is it incorrect? You used and in between the two adjectives, so no adjective is necessary. 
  • Incorrect: My wacky, English teacher writes funny sentences. 
  • Why is it incorrect? Technically, wacky and English serve as adjectives; however, let's look at two things. One, replace the comma with and. Does it make sense? "My wacky and English teacher writes funny sentences." Unless you're saying she's English (from England), that pairing makes no sense. Two, could you flip flop the adjectives and make a logical sentence? "My English and wacky teacher writes funny sentences." So, try these two tests to determine if your "list" of adjectives actually goes together and needs a comma.
Place #5: Use commas before or after you directly address someone. 
  • Richard, who's your favorite Little Rascal? Is it Alfalfa, or is it Spanky? Sinner.
  • Stop looking at me, Swan. 
  • Note: If these sentences sound familiar to you, then you're awesome because you've obviously watched Tommyboy (example #1) and Billy Madison (example #2).
Place #6: Use commas in a list. (In place #4, I already talked about the list of adjective, so I will not belabor that point again. I will provide you with different lists.)
  • Example: As a teacher, I've learned many new things: how to jerk, what "coning" is, who makes the best YouTube videos, and where to go online if I want to rot my brain.
  • Please note: Some people do not place a final comma before the word and. I hate these people. Okay, not really, but I want to shove a hot poker into their eye socket. Okay, not really, but it grinds my gears. See the following visual for what you need to know about the Oxford comma. 

 Place #7: Place commas before, around, after elements of the sentence (clauses, phrases, words) that you could live without
  • Correct: You use semicolons really well. I am, however, unimpressed by your use of  commas.
  • Why is it correct? You don't need however. It's just a transitional word, so place commas around it. In circumstances such as this one, consider the commas like little midget, chopped-in-half versions of a set of parentheses.
  • I am not writing an incorrect sentence. I have been writing this post (on and off) for about a week. If I have to spend one more minute on this section of the post, I will scoop out my eyes with a melon baller. Deal. 

I realize that this post may have generated even more questions in your curious, eager mind. If you need a separate post on any of the grammatical terms, please let me know in the comments section.

NOTE: I try to avoid using really complicated, "Englishy" terms. I'm figuring that many of my readers fall into one of two groups: one, English teachers who want to show their brainless (I mean GENIUS) students how to stop abusing the comma, and two, people who aren't entirely comfortable with grammatical terms.