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A Word, Please: Common errors with commas

June Casagrande

Liz in Newport Beach posed a good question about commas. Consider the following two sentences.

“Days are usually great, but, when they aren’t great, they still pass in 24 hours.”

“Every word should bring something to the table and, if it doesn’t, it should be chopped out.”

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In both examples, a conjunction is connecting independent clauses. In the first, that conjunction is “but.” In the second, it’s “and.” But the “but” has a comma before it and the “and” does not. What, Liz wants to know, is the right way to handle these?

The rules for commas seem, at first glance, to be pretty clear. They state that when any of the coordinating conjunctions “and,” “but” or “so” connects two clauses that could stand alone as sentences, put a comma before the conjunction unless the whole sentence is short, simple and poses no danger of confusion. In other words, use a comma before the conjunction — or don’t.

That’s why both these sentences are punctuated correctly. It’s also why you could change your mind about both — removing the comma after “great” and inserting one after “table” — and still be correct.

Punctuation rules are full of gray areas where you can call the shots. In fact, the rules can be so subjective that when I was writing a book about punctuation a few years ago, I recruited a panel of professional copy editors to answer the question “What would you do?” in different situations not clearly covered by the rule books.

The most interesting of their answers involved the sentence “She lives with her husband, Tim, her dog, Bruno, and two cats, Bella and Charlie.” Technically, the rules call for commas after “husband,” “dog” and “cats” (and would probably involve some semicolons in the sentence, too).

Without a comma before “Tim,” you imply that she has more than one husband. Without the comma before Bruno, you imply that she has more than one dog.

This subtle point about commas is easier to understand if we talk about brothers. If I have just one brother, I could say “My brother will attend” without any confusion on which brother I’m talking about. If I threw in his name, “My brother, Joe, will attend,” that in no way narrows down who I’m talking about. It just adds some supplemental information: a name.

But if I had two brothers, a name would perform a very different function. It would add specificity to the noun “brother,” narrowing down its meaning. So if I happened to have two brothers, the sentence about Joe would be written “My brother Joe will attend.”

Nonessential, “parenthetical” information gets set off with commas. “Restrictive” information, like a name that adds specificity, does not take commas. That’s the basic rule.

In our Tim and Bruno sentence, we can presume that the woman has just one husband and just one dog. Their names don’t narrow down our list of possible husband and dog suspects. So technically, the names Tim and Bruno are nonrestrictive and should be set off with commas, as I did above.

But many copy editors feel that too many commas turn a sentence into such an eyesore that they’re not worth it. When there’s no danger of confusion, editors sometimes break the rules in the interest of paving a smoother path for the reader. So it’s no surprise that most of the copy editors who weighed in for my book said they would omit the commas around Tim and Bruno in that sentence.

Yes, commas have some very inflexible rules. But they have some flexible rules, too. And even in the most clear-cut instances, professional publishers might defy any of them in the interest of creating an smooth ride for the reader.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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