I don't know about you, but nothing gets me more rankled than a comma splice, sometimes I spend entire days that I should be working in bed recovering from viewing this all-too-common mechanical error.
Did you catch me using a comma splice in the very sentence I denounced it? Chances are you didn't. Comma splices, the engorged appendices of the grammar world, are just one of a myriad of mistakes people often make when attempting to use this tiny friend.
That's right, people. Commas, like ladybugs, are our friends; if we know how to use them, then, like our friends, they'll help us look smarter, feel better, and earn money.
As you can see from the cover of Bill Cosby's most recent book, Come on People, he's forgotten the comma of direct address. That makes it, seem not like he's telling "people" to "come on," but like he's telling the understood "you" to "come on people"! (Those white blotches aren't helping.)
This caused a bit of a stir in the grammar blog community a few months ago. It's not hard to understand why; for, all the work that goes into editing books by prominent people, they should at least grammar check the three-word title.
But, not all comma errors are fun-and-games-until-somebody-gets-hurt. Consider this from the NY Sun:
There appears to be an error on the bronze plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, inscribed with the famous sonnet "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus.
Lazarus's poem contains the immortal lines: "'Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.'" Just prior to these lines on the plaque are inscribed the following lines: "'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she / With silent lips." But in the handwritten manuscript for a collection of poems that Lazarus compiled in 1886, a year before her death, the phrase "ancient lands" is set off by commas: "'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!'"
As Stephen Colbert said:
Whatever happened to the old adage, "Copy edit twice, cast in bronze once"? Now we've spent 120 years thinking our "pomp" should be keeping "ancient lands," instead of "ancient lands" keeping our "pomp"! That changes everything.
Indeed it does.
Now I know that some people get put off by commas because they think they're complicated. But if you read, and memorize these 15 rules of comma usage, provided for everyone by the good folks at Purdue University you can't go wrong.
If that's too much for you, there's an easy way to remember and check for the most common comma karma errors. ABCD2: American, Buddy, Comma, Double-check, and 2 independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunctions, not other uses of coordinating conjunction, require a comma.
Here's ABCD2 with something I like, to call an explanation:
Newsflash to the America-haters: if you live inside these borders soon to be walled up, then you have to put the comma inside the quotation marks:
He told me to call him "sir," and that was what I was longing for.
Here's the same sentence, except written in heathen English:
He told me to call him 'sir', and that was what I was longing for.
Incomprehensible gibberish! If I didn't write them both myself I wouldn't have understood the second either.
I don't get it, people, but I hope that someday the English will learn to speak American.
Commas that set off phrases in the middle of the sentence always come with a buddy. Think of this as comma homosexuality - they aren't chillin' with their comma dudes and hopin' to score some semicolon vajayjay; they prefer the company of their own punctuation mark. (Plus they're kinda campy.)
Lu Anne's girlfriend, Bethany has the sexiest little black dress I've ever seen.
should be this:
Lu Anne's girlfriend, Bethany, has the sexiest Leatherman I've ever seen.
See what a difference that second comma makes?
Use it correctly.
- Double-check: Don't be so fast and sloppy, that you don't catch obvious comma errors, because if you don't, your readers will.
The best way I've found to double-check comma usage is to put them in everywhere and then take out the ones that aren't supposed to be there. Take this sentence I wrote a few weeks ago:
This thing won't be over until it's over, and looking for an easy way out now makes me question our ability to stay in this for the long fight, which goes beyond Obama, or Clinton, Democrats, Republicans, and specific legislation, for that matter, and straight to enacting, legislatively, culturally, and economically, our vision for a queer-affirming and otherwise free and equal society.
Oh, no! That's a lot of commas! How do we know if they're all supposed to be there?
This, thing, won't, be, over, until, it's, over, and, looking, for, an, easy, way, out, now, makes, me, question, our, ability, to, stay, in, this, for, the, long, fight, which, goes, beyond, Obama, or, Clinton, Democrats, Republicans, or, any, specific, legislation, for, that, matter, and, straight, to, enacting, legislatively, culturally, and, economically, our, vision, for, a, queer-affirming, and, otherwise, free, and, equal, society.
Doesn't the first sentence just flow better after reading that second sentence? I think I've made my point.
- 2 independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction, not other uses of coordinating conjunctions, require a comma.
If you're writing "Blah and blah," "Blah or blah," or "Blah but blah," then you need a comma before the conjunction if both "blah," and "blah" can stand alone.
That'd be easy if we spoke Blahese, but we don't. I'll be the first to admit that I make a mistake with this when I write too quickly, and I see it quite often when I'm reading blogs. People have to edit more closely, or grammar rules need to be changed.
OK, team, hands in the middle, "Commas are a nuanced and complex way to help make ourselves understood in the written word" on three. One, two, three - COMMAS ARE A NUANCED AND COMPLEX WAY TO HELP MAKE OURSELVES UNDERSTOOD IN THE WRITTEN WORD!!! Whoooo!!!
See how many comma errors you can find in this post, either a comma where it shouldn't be or no comma where one should be. Errors in blockquote boxes don't count.
- 0-2: You're pretty much illiterate, so I can say whatever I want about you, fuckchop.
- 3-5: Reader, this is not acceptable. I know you can do better than this. See me.
- 6-7: Good! You learned something from this post! That's a compliment to me and... a compliment to me!
- 8-9: Grammar God
- 10: You're Alex Blaze.
- 11: OK, you counted that comma splice in the first sentence, but I pointed it out in the next paragraph, so you can't claim it here. Sorry, reader, but you have to pull your own weight.
- 12: That one's debatable.
- 13-14: Really? I didn't see those at all! Just one of those days, y'know, where there's always something.
- 15-16: OK, now you're getting on my nerves.
- 17+: I'm strong enough not to care what you think about me, nerd.