Comma Clickbait: This One Crazy Comma Rule Will Shock You!

comma
“HEY! I’m an apostrophe! What, does all punctuation look alike to you?”

Okay, it probably won’t shock you. Maybe you’ll experience some mild surprise.

What? I said it was clickbait.

Anyway. Commas, man.

When I look at resources for teaching writing, I often find myself scratching my head at the way commas are covered, and I’m pretty sure I don’t have lice. Some resources attempt to cover a lot of territory — for example, this one. Try to read through that without your eyes glazing over.

Others are shorter, but manage to confuse as much as they manage to educate. This page, for example instructs writers like so:

When your clauses are independent (they could stand alone as complete sentences), it is absolutely necessary to use both the comma and the “and” before the final one.
The problem? They’ve made it sound as if you have to use “and” at the beginning of an independent clause at the end of a sentence, just because their example sentence happened to be an independent clause beginning with “and” (when in truth that same advice would apply regardless of which coordinating conjunction it began with). And sure, an experienced writer will know better — but an experienced would already know most of the stuff on this list, like “use commas to set off items in a list!” and “use commas in large numbers!”
Other resources are really bare-bones, especially when you look at the handouts and posters shared on sites like Pinterest. Here’s one example. Note that again, the creator has, in an endeavor to simplify the material, set students up for problems later on, blithely instructing:
Add a comma when two separate sentences are combined. | We purchased some cheese, and we purchased some fruit.
When the “second sentence” is a clause beginning with a coordination conjunction, as in the example given, hell yeah, put a comma in there. But a comma can’t (usually) do that job alone. (If you want punctuation that can go between two complete sentences and turn them into one big sentence, you need a semicolon; semicolons are dead sexy. But that’s another post.)
Here’s one more example from Pinterest. Again, it’s kind of a scattershot approach; fewer than half a dozen “comma rules” are identified, and adhering to them rigidly would lead to some irritating mistakes. For example, the advice to “set off the words ‘yes’ and ‘no'” with commas” will work some of the time, but is terrible advice if you’re writing a sentence like “No capybaras were harmed in the filming of this movie.” (Try mentally adding a comma after the “no” there. It doesn’t do good things for the meaning of the sentence.)
comma image copy
Prevent the zombie apocalypse. Use commas.
The truth is, it’s not really possible to talk about “comma rules” out of context (except for that one crazy rule, which I’ll get to in a minute). “Comma rules” aren’t really “comma rules.” They’re rules and conventions embedded in the nature of how we write sentences with lists, conjunctions, transitions, appositives, clause-modifying verbal phrases, prepositions, adjective clauses, and all the other sentence (and number!) thingamajiggies we do that involve commas.
Out of their context, those rules don’t really make a lot of sense, because you have to understand things like coordinating conjunctions to understand why you’d use a comma when you’re using one to join a sentence. You have to understand appositives to understand why you’d use commas to set them off (and that in some cases, other forms of punctuation, like parentheses or long dashes, can be used instead. Commas can be a stylistic choice in a number of ways.)
To me, it makes more sense to talk about the different phrasal and clausal structures that form our toolkit as writers; the rules and guidelines for punctuation will naturally be part of those lessons. But removing commas from their context — ripping them free of the complex structures that undergird their use — doesn’t make a lot of sense. As you can see, it either makes the lesson overwhelming, because so many nuances need to be covered, or the lesson needs to be oversimplified to the point at which it becomes useless or even counterproductive.
There is one comma rule that, oddly, the examples I gave didn’t make very prominent, and it’s an important one. It’s the Big Kahuna of comma rules. It’s the comma rule to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.
Are you ready?
Never put one comma between the subject and verb of a sentence.
Here are some examples of what happens when you do that, and you can see it looks so, so wrong:
The boy, threw the ball.
A new report, found that many high school graduates are confused by commas.
Hillary Clinton, received a briefing on the situation in Syria from intelligence officials yesterday.
If you’re wondering why it’s not ok to put a comma between the subject and verb, I don’t have a pat answer other than the fact that it essentially breaks the sentence. The subject and verb are the heart of a sentence: here’s the thing, and here’s what the thing is doing. Breaking them up doesn’t make sense.
But note my careful, legalistic phasing: I say that you shouldn’t put one comma between a subject and verb because you can insert phrasal or clausal structures between the subject and verb of a sentence, and you can punctuate them with commas. The thing is, you’ll always need at least two. For example:
Hillary Clinton, Presidential candidate and former U.S. Secretary of State, received a briefing on the situation in Syria from intelligence officials yesterday.
I’ve inserted a noun phrase appositive after “Hillary Clinton,” and set it off with commas (count ’em: two). They allow the writer and the reader to hit the pause button, do important business that will help us move ahead in the sentence, and then continue on fully prepared for the verb and whatever else is to come.
So there you have it. The one crazy comma rule that will shock you, blow your mind, and/or amaze you. Don’t put just one comma between a subject and its verb.
Other than that, I think that to serve students well, it makes sense to talk about how to use commas when we’re talking about sentence structures that need to be, or have the option to be, punctuated by them. I’ll be talking more about different phrasal and clausal structures in future posts; in the meantime, you can read more about sentence focus in the context of active vs passive sentence construction here, more about avoiding dangling modifiers here, and concrete versus abstract subject choices here.

 

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