People Who Live in Glass Houses

glass-house-76934_1920Welcome back for the last of four sessions about the importance of commas in “Punctuation Saves Lives: Part 4”—this time we’re looking at using commas around extra information in a sentence. Here’s the conundrum I presented at the end of my last blog:

Which sentence is correct: the one without commas or the one with commas?

People who live in glass houses should get dressed in the basement.

People, who live in glass houses, should get dressed in the basement.

If you chose the first one, you’re right. If commas are placed around the information “who live in glass houses,” the sentence would be making a sweeping generality that seems ridiculous. The whole sense of the sentence changes based on whether it contains the commas. In our examples, if we include the commas, we’re saying that all people should get dressed in the basement, a statement that clearly doesn’t seem logical. That isn’t the same message that we get if we remove the commas. The information is essential to the meaning of the sentence because it limits or narrows the noun it’s talking about. Without the commas, the phrase “who live in glass houses” narrows the group of people who should get dressed in the basement: only those who live in glass houses.

When trying to determine if the information is extra or essential, it’s necessary to ask yourself, “Do I want to limit or narrow the person, place, or thing being described?” If you are, then DO NOT use commas. Commas in this setting indicate an extra or non-essential description.

Not every case of whether to use commas is as obvious as the previous one. Here’s a set of examples where the information may or may not need to be set off by commas, depending on what a writer is trying to communicate:

My brother who lives in California has never been to New York.

My brother, who lives in California, has never been to New York.

The first version communicates that the speaker/writer has more than one brother, and that a specific one (the one who lives in California) has never been to New York. The second version of the sentence implies that either the writer/speaker has only one brother, so there is no need to narrow the options or that the writer isn’t concerned about differentiating that brother from his or her other brothers. The information within the commas acts as extra material that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. The difference is subtle in this set of examples, and the reader wouldn’t be able to judge one version as being more correct than the other without knowing the writer’s intent. So even when the commas are neither obviously correct nor incorrect, there is a subtle shift in what’s being communicated.

The more often you know why you’re using a comma or any other punctuation mark, the more often you’re in control of your writing and your message. My hope is that you’ll be able to keep these reminders about comma usage in mind when you’re revising your own work, building your confidence as you continue to grow as a writer and communicator!

glass-house-76934_1920

Punctuation Saves Lives!

Most of us have seen it on a bumper sticker, meme, or tee shirt:

“Let’s eat Grandma.”

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”

“Punctuation saves lives.”

We may need a moment to figure out the humor in the last line, but it usually gets a chuckle. There’s a huge difference in what’s being communicated (family cannibalism versus a polite invitation to share a meal) all because of a simple comma. According to a 2019 study in the journal English Today, the comma is the most often used punctuation mark in nonfiction, and comes in a close second to the period in fiction writing, so understanding how to use it meaningfully is a worthwhile goal for any writer.

Although there are many guidelines about how to use a comma, the most common reasons fall into four categories. I’ll cover one of those reasons below, explain it, and give some examples. You’ll need to come back later to read about the other three reasons to use commas. In no time, you’ll be more confident about when to use commas to strengthen your own writing.

In a List—this is the easiest guideline, and it’s one most of us understand, at least in a basic way. When you have more than two items in a series, you need to separate them with commas, adding an “and” before the last item. The problem comes when we try to figure out whether to use a comma before the “and.” This last comma is the crux of the whole “Oxford comma” debacle. Many decades ago, Oxford University Press insisted that the comma before the last “and” was the only proper way to write. However, as in all aspects of the English language, usage changes over time. More recently many writers feel that the last comma is unnecessary and a waste of their time.

Example of an Oxford comma: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon.”

Example without the Oxford comma”: “Every morning for breakfast I eat scrambled eggs, toast and bacon.”

Both examples are easy to understand, and they communicate the same information. However, there are times that the Oxford comma is needed to clarify the writer’s meaning.

Example without the Oxford comma causes confusion: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo and Tristan.”

Example with the Oxford comma: “I would like to thank my parents, Margo, and Tristan.”

In the first of these last two examples, the writer may be telling us that the parents’ names are Margo and Tristan, or the writer may be thanking at least four separate people—parents (which could be two or more people), someone named Margo, and someone named Tristan. In the second example we can be assured that the writer is thanking more people than just his or her parents. You may be thinking that such a small difference in meaning is really just splitting hairs, but perhaps a more humorous example can reinforce my message.

Example without the Oxford comma: The guest speaker addressed the gang members, the mayor and the police chief. Without the second comma before the “and,” we may think that the mayor and police chief have a criminal record!

I admit I’m an Oxfordian, preferring to use the comma before the “and” to avoid any possible confusion, but I’m magnanimous in conceding that a writer may decide to withhold that final comma before the “and” and still be a competent, accomplished communicator. The best advice is to follow what your publisher’s style guide dictates. If a specific style guide is to be applied, you don’t have to even consider which you prefer. If you’re self-publishing, the choice is yours, but apply your choice consistently! No sloppy punctuation, please!keyboard-311803_1280

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