A Word, Please: A punctuation mark you may be neglecting

I have a confession to make. You know those cheesy online articles that use questionable tactics to suck you in? Well, they suck me in.

I see a headline like “10 Things in Your Kitchen that Are Killing You” or “Five Ways to Retire Now with a Yacht and a Mansion” and chances are I’m clicking the link. I “read” those picture-gallery articles that try to convey complex principles of biochemistry through high-resolution images of blueberries and pretty women sipping green tea.

I should know better. Nine times out of 10 the online articles I read contain no new information whatsoever. An article headlined “10 Superfoods to Rejuvenate Your Skin” is usually about as newsworthy as moms saying “Eat your vegetables.”

And how many more times will a personal finance writer “report” to me that I can grow rich by skipping my $4 morning latte (which I don’t ever buy anyway)?

If I know that the tips in these chirpy little online articles aren’t worth my time, why do I read them? I suspect the answer lies in the packaging. By making me feel that an article is about me, and by promising to deliver my salvation in the form of a handy numbered list, writers and editors suck me in every time.

So if these folks can use these tactics to palm off warmed-over pablum as news (selling to their advertisers the attention of gullible people like me), I can use the same tactics for good.

Thus, welcome (finally) to this week’s topic: “Three Comma Mistakes You’re Making Without Realizing It.”

Almost everyone has begun an email with an opener like “Hi Jane,” or “Hello Bob,” with the comma after the name, which means that almost everyone has punctuated this greeting badly.

According to major style guides, a direct address — any name or other term you call someone — should be set off with commas. So a comma should go between “hi” and “Jane.” People get this wrong because they confuse it with “Dear Jane.” But that’s different. “Dear” is not followed by a comma because it’s working as an adjective modifying the name, so it becomes part of the same noun phrase, unlike “hi” and “hello.”

When you insert this comma into “Hi, Jane,” the comma after the name suddenly doesn’t look as good. The “Dear Jane,” we were taught to use when addressing business letters usually put a comma after Jane. With “Hi, Jane” a second comma is still technically correct, it looks better to just use a period instead: “Hi, Jane.”

In emails I get from readers, the most common comma mistake occurs when someone wants to single out a word or phrase with quotation marks, then puts a comma after it: The word “snarky”, I know, is popular. In British style this is correct. But in American style, a comma always comes before a closing quotation mark, regardless of its meaning or function. (Same rule applies to periods, too.)

When I’m editing professionally written articles, the fixes I make most often are to commas like the ones found in this sentence: “The quaint, four-bedroom home.”

That comma is a bad call. Yes, commas go between adjectives, but not always. Coordinate adjectives, ones that would make sense with the word “and” between them, are separated by commas. “A tall, dark, handsome man” is a “tall and dark and handsome man.” But a “quaint four-bedroom home” is not a “quaint and four-bedroom home.” So no comma.

There’s more to say about commas, of course. But, then, this column wouldn’t do justice to those pithy schlock lists that suck me in every time.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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