To Comma, or Not to Comma

From Writers in the Storm:

Welcome to comma central, where we’re talking about all things comma. Among most writers, you’ll find a consensus when it comes to this tiny, ambiguous mark. They don’t like it. It’s too confusing. When do you use it? Where do you use it? Why do you use it? And who even cares, really?

Trust me, as a writer, you do!

. . . .

In this section, we’ll cover essential and nonessential information in a sentence and how that plays into when and where you add in commas or leave them out.     

But first, a quick review.

Crucial Definitions

CLAUSE is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence.

Or think of it this way. A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.

SUBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.

A PREDICATE is a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.

An OBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.

Here’s an example.

Mr. Jones (noun) walked (verb) his yippy dog (object) at the crack of dawn.

Nonessential vs Essential Information

When it comes to your sentence, what information can you afford to lose and what information do you have to keep? How do you figure it out? And what do you do once you know?

The quick answer is:

  • nonessential information is the part of a sentence you can do without. 
  • essential information is the part of a sentence you can’t do without. 

Nonessential Information:

Let’s start with nonessential information—the parts of a sentence you can do without. That doesn’t mean we’re putting those words on the chopping block. It just means we need to set them off with commas.

What we put inside commas or after a comma is usually considered NONESSENTIAL information. It isn’t needed to decipher the meaning of the sentence.

In the examples below, the bolded words are nonessential.

Inside Commas: The book on the shelf, which is exciting, is the one you should read next.

After a Comma: The weather in Texas is hot, which I really don’t like.

Do you see how the bolded information doesn’t really matter when it comes to understanding the sentence? The important part the author is trying to get across is that it’s hot in Texas.

The key point to note here is this. If we were to take out anything between the commas or after the comma, the sentence still has to be grammatically correct and make sense. It has to do both.

Nonessential words are red shirts. Like in the original Star Trek. Treat what’s in between commas of after a comma as a red shirt—an expendable part of the team, usually the first to die. At any time, I could sacrifice it without losing a crucial member of the sentence squad.

Inside Commas: A week off for vacation, I think, is great.

After a Comma: A week off for vacation is great, I think.

Removing “I think” in either instance above changes nothing grammatically or in terms of what each sentence means.

The red-shirt idea works for clauses, phrases, and single words too. Any of the words in bold below can be deleted and still keep the sentence grammatically correct without changing the essence of what I want the sentence to mean.

  • Clause: Next October, which is my favorite month, works for our writing retreat.
  • Phrase: You’re a great guy. Your brother, sad to say, I could do without.
  • Word: I usually like my English teacher. Today, however, I do not.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

13 thoughts on “To Comma, or Not to Comma”

  1. Harumph!

    Commas mark what is “Nonessential Information”?

    Poppycock, I say.

    This is from The Hobbit. Tell me which part is “Nonessential Information”.

    “The best rooms were all on the left-hand side (going in), for these were the only ones to have windows, deep-set round windows looking over his garden, and meadows beyond, sloping down to the river.”

    And then this:

    “This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins had an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained—well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.”

    Now I shall go back to reading The Hobbit, and then LOTR, filled with essential information.

    • Non-essential information is only one comma rule of many and does not always apply. I think this article inadvertently suggests this applies to all commas.

    • In fairness, this excerpt is from Part Two. Follow the links to Part One and you will find the discussion if independent and dependent clauses.

  2. We were taught in school how to respond to punctuation as readers, not how to wield it as writers. For a simple, easy, common-sense approach, I recommend Punctuation for Writers (2nd edition, my book).

  3. Using the Tolkien example, commas operate as “breath” marks — try reading those passages aloud. Grammatical punctuation guidance is ladled on top of that basic usage.

    • Which is why reading what you wrote out loud during proofing is so important. If you pause, or feel like you should pause, while speaking, and there is no comma there – you have a fix to make.

      Not always, though. When my daughter was taking “creative” writing, she wrote a first person stream of consciousness piece about having her foot trapped under a boulder. There, the commas that the purists (including her instructor, alas) insist upon would have given a sense of deliberate thought – not panicked reaction.

      • But that’s the point. If you punctuated it as you spoke it (complete with breathless panic) there would (and should) indeed be far fewer commas. Language/rhetoric first (vs. purist rules). It’s not just a matter of breathing — it’s also emotion in the voice, rising tone, accelerating heartbeat, etc. All of that should indeed have precedence over bloodless punctuation. The punctuation should serve the writer (and storyteller), not the other way around.

    • Well, we do already for singing, and back in the day, when “vocal gymnastics” was taught in schools, the use of dramatic pauses and proper breathing were both taught.

      I agree, though, that today it would be going a bit far.

  4. “A CLAUSE is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence.”

    So far, so good.

    “A SUBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.”

    Oh, dear. There is much wrongness here. A subject can, and often is, more than simply a noun. That definition of a noun was fine for third grade, but we are adults now. And who says a sentence has any action?

    “A PREDICATE is a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.”

    Oh, dear. Yet more wrongness. We can go with the belief that the predicate is just the verb, and leave it at that.

    “An OBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.”

    Not as bad. It has the same problem as with subject, of assuming that this grammatical structure consists of just one word. But beyond that, it is serviceable as an informal definition.

    “Inside Commas: A week off for vacation, I think, is great.
    After a Comma: A week off for vacation is great, I think.
    Removing “I think” in either instance above changes nothing grammatically or in terms of what each sentence means.”

    Oh, dear. “I think” is the subject and the verb of the sentence, moved from their usual spot, which English allows. The more usual order would be

    “I think a week off for vacation is great.”

    The “a week off for vacation is great” part is a clause acting as the object of the verb “think.” And yes, removing the “I think” changes the meaning of the sentence, from a statement of personal opinion to a universal dictum.

    All in all, as grammatical analysis this is very half-baked. The distinction made here between “essential” and “non-essential” parts of the sentence is so vague as to be useless.

    • A universal dictum is exactly what this breed of grammar…authoritarians, shall we say, want.
      “My way or the highway.”
      The MS WORD grammar checker is more flexible than them.
      (Not an endorsement.)

      Third grade sounds about right.

Comments are closed.