Category Archives: Commas

Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.



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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 7

Commas Used with Appositives.

I think we’re coming to the end of comma-use tips. Because I’m trying to explain some of the more technical uses that often snag writers, I don’t think I’ll address their placement in dates and addresses. I’m sure there are other sites that give that basic information.

So today I’ll tackle “appositives.” The easiest way to think of these is as two ways of naming the same person, place or thing. For example:

  • Los Angeles Lakers=NBA champs
  • Rebecca LuElla Miller=freelance writer and editor
  • the Bible=the Word of God

One sentence construction separates these two ways of naming the same thing with a verb:

    The Los Angeles Lakers are the current NBA champs.
    Rebecca LuElla Miller has been a freelance writer and editor since 2002.
    The Bible is the inspired Word of God.

In such instances, there is no appositive and therefor no commas.

But, you might be thinking, you said appositives are two ways of naming the same thing. True. But they must also be side by side, without a verb between. Here are some examples:

    The Los Angeles Lakers, the current NBA champs, have a good chance of repeating this year.

    I’ve hired Rebecca LuElla Miller, a freelance writer and editor since 2002.

    The Bible, God’s inspired Word, is the authority upon which we can rely.

For the record, the second of the two words or phrases, the portion I underlined, is the appositive. It is in “apposition” to the one it renames.

In most instances, the appositive is adding extra material much the same as non-restrictive phrases, and therefore requires commas (or a single comma if the appositive is at the end of a sentence). However, in some cases (the exception you were probably expecting 😉 ) the appositive is closely related to what it renames and therefore necessary to the understanding of the sentence. In those instances no comma is needed.

Here are a few examples:

    My dog Baylea was sick last night. (Owner has more than one dog, so Baylea, though it is an appositive, is necessary to understand the meaning of the sentence).
    Her book Kisses of an Enemy will be published next year. (Writer has more than one book, so the title, though it is an appositive, is necessary to understand the meaning.)

If you have any particular grammar areas you’d like to see me tackle next, leave a comment. Moderation is on so you won’t see it, but I’ll get it in my inbox.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 6

Commas Used in Elliptical Constructions.

Commas indicate a slight pause. In an elliptical construction—a sentence in which a word has been left out—commas usually fill in the gap. Usually! There is the dreaded exception—sometimes the meaning is clear without the comma, no pause occurs naturally in reading the sentence, and therefore, no comma is needed.

Examples are always helpful. Here’s a sentence with elliptical construction:

    I moved here from Colorado; Jeff, from Florida; and Sally, from Alaska.

The sentence actually has three clauses:

  • I moved here from Colorado
  • Jeff moved here from Florida
  • Sally moved here from Alaska

In the last two, however, words are missing. The comma has been inserted to show where those understood words belong.

Here’s another example:

    In professional basketball teams play eight-two games; in football, sixteen; in baseball, one hundred sixty-two.

Sometimes the meaning of a sentence is so clear, the commas aren’t needed.

    One writer is good at characterization, another at plots, and a third at setting.

I’m inclined to think that the presence of a pause should be your guide. You might feel like you’re “just guessing,” but your decision will be based on the purpose of the comma—it’s there to tell the reader to take a breath or at least to take a break, a slight one.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5

Commas Used in Complex Sentences.

In Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2 I discussed commas used in compound sentences. Since a compound sentence contains two or more independent clauses, I took the time to define and provide examples of independent clauses.

I bring this up because today I want to tackle the use of commas in complex sentences, or ones with an independent clause and at least one dependent clause.

By way of refresher, a clause is a group of words with a subject (who dun it) and a verb (what action did they do). What separates an independent clause from a dependent clause is whether or not that particular group of words can stand alone as a sentence; that is, is the thought complete?

Here are some dependent clauses:

    after the game started
    before her mother served dinner
    if the speaker was right
    when the judge finally made his ruling
    because the story held my interest to the end

In each case, the group of words contains a subject and verb, but because of the conjunction that introduces the clause, the thought is incomplete. (Bonus coverage: these conjunctions are called subordinate conjunctions because they subordinate a dependent clause to the independent clause).

I love these complex sentences because the comma use is so straightforward. If the dependent clause comes first, use a comma between the two clauses. However, when the independent clause comes first, you don’t need a comma between the two.

Notice the first sentence in the above paragraph. The dependent clause because the comma use is so straightforward came after the independent clause, so no comma was necessary. However, in the next two sentences, the dependent clauses came first, so each needed a comma at the end of the dependent clause.

Here are some additional examples of dependent clauses beginning sentences, and therefore requiring commas.

    Because his brother finished first, he won the prize.
    Since the rain stopped, we put away our umbrellas.
    If the pitcher strikes out the next batter, she will set a personal record for the season.

Here are examples of dependent clauses following independent clauses and therefore not requiring commas.

    The defendant thanked his attorney after the hearing ended.
    The road won’t open until Monday because the workers haven’t finished clearing away the debris.
    The media attention increased when the two best skiers each moved into the semifinals.

As I said, this comma use is straightforward (read, easy). No exceptions and no judgment calls. That’s my kind of punctuation rule. 😀

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 4

Commas Used with Non-restrictive Phrases.

Recently I accepted a friend invitation on Facebook from a writer who co-authored a book on punctuation! For those who struggle with the mechanics of writing, John Shore and Richard Lederer’s Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation (St. Martin’s, 2005) might be the book you need.

Also, from time to time I find others who edit. I’ll be adding their links, so you may wish to check the list of Freelance Editors in the sidebar.

On to comma instruction. Since we talked about “non-essentials” last time, I think it’s appropriate to piggy-back on that point to discuss “restrictive” and “non-restrictive” phrases.

A group of words working together qualifies as a phrase. Ones that are necessary to define what they describe are called restrictive—that is, they restrict the noun to one particular person or place or thing. Here’s an example of a restrictive phrase:

    The boy waiting for the bus looks cold.

A non-restrictive phrase is one that isn’t needed to narrow down the who or what or where because it is already clear. In essence, the non-restrictive phrase is like the parenthetical elements discussed in Part 3 of this comma series—that is, it adds bonus information that the reader doesn’t need in order to make sense of the sentence. Instead, it is information the writer wishes to communicate, but the basic meaning would be intact if he left it out. Here are a couple examples of non-restrictive phrases (take note of the comma placement):

    My brother, wearing a heavy coat, waited an hour in the cold.

    My brother waited an hour for the bus, wearing a heavy coat.

Hopefully you noticed that the non-restrictive phrase may be positioned right after the noun it describes or further in the sentence. If the phrase is in the middle of the sentence, commas are required before and after; if at the end of the sentence, one comma before the phrase.

Hey, no exceptions with this one. That’s refreshing! 😀

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 3

Commas Used with Parenthetical Expressions.

I had no intention of staying away so long. Computer problems brought on my absence, then blogging about punctuation slid toward the bottom of the list of priorities as I scrambled to catch up.

I think that’s as it should be. Good punctuation does not make good writing. It only makes good writing clearer.

I want to pick up the instruction on comma use with one of the easier directives—easier, that is, until we get to the “except” part of the rule.

But here’s the essence: Use commas to separate non-essentials from the rest of the sentence. (The grammatical term is “parenthetical elements”). What do I mean by “non-essentials”? Interjections, like oh and indeed; transitions like however and therefore; and descriptive phrases like … well, I’ll need to give an example.

    The most tiresome, if not the most oft-repeated, argument is seldom persuasive.

In this sentence, if not the most oft-repeated does not add essential meaning. If the writer were to remove it, the sentence would still be complete and clear. Think of these kinds of phrases as bonus material—helpful, informative, but not part of the basic package.

I mentioned an exception, but that isn’t quite accurate. On rare occasions interjections or transitions may be essential, in which case, they do not fall under this non-essentials directive.

That may seem confusing if a writer is thinking that some words, by virtue of their part of speech, must be separated by commas from the rest of the sentence. However, if a person thinks of the function of the word in a particular sentence, there’s a bit of a judgment call, which can make comma use a little iffy.

Here’s an example of a necessary transition:

    Two workers didn’t finish and therefore received less pay.

The transition therefore serves as a necessary tie between the cause and the outcome and therefore does not require commas. (Just as the therefore in this sentence does not. 😀 )

Fortunately, as I stated above, these occasions are not frequent.

Probably the most helpful piece of information to remember is this from Chicago Manual of Style: “Commas set off [separate from the rest of the sentence] parenthetical elements if a slight break is intended.” (CMS, 6.30)

Now every writer should be able to identify the places he intends to create a slight break, shouldn’t he? 😉

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 2

Commas Used in Compound Sentences.

Comma confusion and conjunctions seem to shadow one another. For now let’s address coordinating conjunctions, specifically the “Big Three” which are the most common—and, but, or.

These conjunctions join “words or groups of words of equal grammatical rank” (Chicago Manual of Style, 5.181). That is, they join noun with noun (boy and his dog), verb with verb (typed the letter and printed it out), prepositional phrase with prepositional phrase (in the yard or on the sidewalk), and clause with clause (she ran but he stopped).

Where does the comma fit in with these? As discussed in Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 1, Chicago recommends using a comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more items, but there is another occasion unique to clauses.

When two clauses—groups of words with a subject and verb—could stand independently as a sentence, they are called independent clauses (grammarians aren’t known for creativity – 😉 ). A sentence with two or more independent clauses—in other words, a compound sentence—will employ a comma before the conjunction.

Here are a couple examples from Curse of the Spider King by Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper:

  • Johnny and Autumn couldn’t see what she was doing, but they heard a muted thump.
  • Oh, they never said it out right, but they didn’t have to.
  • The rain came down in earnest now, and Jimmy pulled his slicker tight around himself.

The clue here is to avoid confusing clauses with compound elements (more than one phrase or multiple verbs and their attending describers). And of course there is an exception—a “your choice” exception.

To avoid the confusion, read the material prior to the conjunction and see if it could stand alone, then read the material after the conjunction and see if it also could stand alone. If both are grammatically independent, the sentence is compound. Use a comma before the conjunction.

The exception comes into play when the clauses are short and closely related. Chicago says, in those instances the comma may be omitted. So, for example, in a sentence such as Mom baked the turkey and her sister made pies, the comma before the conjunction may be left out. Or not. You get to choose.

My suggestion? Until you feel fairly comfortable identifying compound sentences apart from sentences with compound elements, use the comma. It will force you to think about the sentence construction.

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Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 1

Commas Used to Separate Items in a Series.

When I taught school, no punctuation mark gave students more trouble than the comma. I saw the same tendency in my first critique group, but I also learned one reason why the little squiggle mark posses such a problem—no one follows the same rules.

Well, “no one” is an exaggeration, but the fact is, there is a variety of style books, and they don’t always agree. For starters, fiction generally uses the Chicago Manual of Style, but journalists follow the AP Stylebook, and educators adhere to the MLA Style Manual. In those three alone, there is significant disagreement.

While I edit both fiction and non-fiction, I’ll more often than not use the Chicago Manual of Style since it seems the least specialized (there are guidelines for scholarly papers and scientific notation for example). It also seems like the most flexible, at least when it comes to the comma, and flexibility is good. Most of the time.

Writers need to remember that punctuation should aid the reader. Hence, the shortcut guide to using commas is the following: use a comma whenever there is a natural pause in the sentence.

Chicago says it this way:

    The comma, aside from its technical uses in mathematical, bibliographical, and other contexts, indicates the smallest break in sentence structure. It denotes a slight pause. Effective use of the comma involves good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view.

I think it’s the “good judgment” part that gives so many of us a hard time. What seems obvious to the author of a piece may be obscure to the reader.

One help is to read our work aloud. The commas ought to match where we pause. If they don’t, then we need to put in some work and learn where those commas should go.

Because of this lengthy introduction, I’ll give one of the more well-known comma uses today. Commas separate items in a series. Not just nouns, mind you, but multiple verbs, adjectives, phrases, and even clauses (groups of words with a subject and verb). Note, Chicago strongly recommends including a comma before the conjunction prior to the final item. Hence, the following: She ran her errands, stopped for lunch, and met her sister at the mall.

Consequently, if there are four items in the series, three commas are required, if seven items, six commas. The exception (there’s always an exception, have you noticed? 😉 ) is in a sentence with conjunctions joining each item. This addendum explains why we don’t use commas to separate father and mother, for example. Two items, one comma, so the rule says. But the items here are joined by a conjunction, so no comma needed.

More on commas next time.


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