English Corner – The Utility of Commas

The Comma is an integral part of any English language sentence and while it may not come up all the time, it is likely to come up many of your sentences especially if they are longer than 10 sentences. The comma helps us to avoid run-on sentences or sentences that are too long-winded, which will distract the reader, and take away from the meaning of your sentence(s).

Commas should be used moderately to not to introduce many pauses within your sentences. You should be looking to use conjunctions in lieu of commas or with them depending upon the context. What you do not want to do is not use commas at all or use them too much. There is a key balance there that a writer in the English language must learn through trial and error as they develop their grammar proficiency.

What a comma (,) does in not just English but in other languages as well is to break down sentences into individual clauses with the comma acting a pause in the action to let the reader catch his or her breath. Commas are used in several scenarios but none as so important as forming a list of two or more items. In a list type of sentence, the comma is effective in separating the people, places, or things into an order from first to last to differentiate them.

If there are two or more items in the list, the comma will come before the conjunction (and, but, or) to finish out the sentence properly. This kind of arrangement forms the basis of the ‘oxford comma’, which is still being debated by English grammar scholars, but for which is popular with some English language students and is advocated for by certain teachers. The comma + conjunction combo is not only just for the oxford comma but for a wide variety of sentences.

If you had to summarize the main uses of commas in sentences, they function in terms of being placed between items for formal lists and they also establish separate yet interdependent clauses within a single sentence. The supplementary uses for commas involve being used between parts of speech such as adjectives, adverbs, and before quotations. Commas can also be used for dates related to days, months, and years in terms of how it is written.

Let’s break down the different uses of commas but listing a few examples for each type of popular usage:

Main Uses

1.      Building lists

·        Not only was Jenny captain of the Varsity soccer team but she was also President of the Chess club, and a member of the National Honor Society.

·        Felix had several things to get from the supermarket today: eggs, milk, bread, meat, and soft drinks for his daughter’s birthday party.

·        I think my grandmother, Jean, will be there along with my grandfather, Patrick, and my mother, Eunice.

2.      Separating the clauses

·        Jack wanted to go out with his friends to the movies, but he couldn’t do so because he had to finish his homework.

·        Lying to other people is not a good idea, and it often hurts other people’s feelings.

·        They were lost in the woods, hoping to get home by morning, but they were out of food and without a compass to guide them.

Supplementary Uses

1.      Adverbs and Adjectives

·        However, he was not guilty of the crime they thought he committed.

·        Moreover, they apologized to him and let him go free.

·        The dreary, sad day was encapsulated by the rainy weather.

·        President Franklin Roosevelt was fervent, unwavering in his belief in the American people’s ability to contribute to the war effort.

2.      Quotations and Dates

·        Mr. Johnson told his students, “You should always know how to use commas in sentences.”

·        LeBron was dismissive of the reporters stating, “I scored 50 points and did my best to help the team win the game.”

·        Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12th, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky, United States.

·        Independence Day happened on July 4th, 1776 as the United States declared its independence from the British Empire.

As you can see from these examples, commas play a really important role in both English writing and in English grammar. There are several main uses and supplementary uses that the English language learner should be aware of. You must be able to practice each of these comma uses regardless of the purpose. In order to use commas properly, you must write your own sentences, make corrections if necessary, and get feedback from your teacher or your other classmates.

Each comma use is important whether its to separate sentence clauses, making a list of items, putting them with adjectives and adverbs, or using them for quotes or dates in those type of sentences. Without commas, you won’t have a complete sentence and you’ll run the risk of having a run-on sentence, which is what you want to avoid as much as possible in mastering English grammar and writing.

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English Corner – The Oxford Comma

One of the key debates in English grammar is the role of the ‘serial’ comma or what’s otherwise popularly known as the ‘oxford’ comma. Depending on whom you might ask, there are constructive arguments to be made as to why the Oxford comma is useful or why it may not be necessary at all. It all depends upon your personal preference in using or not using this kind of comma but it is important to be aware of how it is used and why it is used. Having proper grammar is a key part into developing one’s fluency in English and the Oxford comma is often considered to be necessary to developing that skillset.

The Oxford or serial comma is the last comma for a list of things, people, or places. I’ve listed some examples as to make it clear what this kind of comma is. The Oxford comma is always the last comma and cannot be classified as a serial comma if there is only one comma in the sentence. There has to be at least two or more commas in the sentence to have an Oxford comma take its’ place as the serial comma.

Examples

  1. Please bring your books, pencils, and some paper to class tomorrow.
  2. Remind Jimmy, Patrick, and Tina that they have a Math test today.
  3. I had a salad, an appetizer, steak, and dessert at the restaurant tonight.

As you can see from the examples, the Oxford comma is highlighted and bolded as the last of the commas in the sentence whether the subject(s) are people, things, or places. The thing with the Oxford comma to understand is that it is not mandatory to use and that there is a lot of debate over whether it should be even used at all. The use of the Oxford comma is stylistic and different style guides differ in terms of their views on the serial comma.

For example, the AP style guide for English grammar does not mandate the use of the Oxford comma. However, this is in contrast to other style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style or The Elements of Style, which mandate and support the use of the Oxford comma. Certain professional organizations and agencies such as the United States Government Printing Office and the American Medical Association are supportive of the Oxford comma and encourage its’ use in their employees. Depending upon whom you work for or what line of work you’re in, views on the Oxford comma are likely to differ.

The debate over the Oxford comma extends to across the pond in the United Kingdom where there is also a divide over if it should be used at all. The Oxford Style Manual and the MHRA Style guide support the use of the Oxford comma whereas well-known national publications such as The Times Style Manual and The Economist Style Guide oppose the use of the Oxford comma. When it comes to the serial (Oxford) comma, British and American style guides both fall on opposing sides of this debate.

The main argument in support of using the Oxford comma is based around how it can clear up any ambiguity that comes with using ‘and’ instead of another comma to finish up the sentence. Supporters of the Oxford comma generally wants to make them understood without confusing the audience regardless if they’re writing a newspaper article or a research paper. I’ll give you an example to see how a sentence’s meaning could be ambiguous without the Oxford comma being used.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney and Katy Perry.

Because there’s no Oxford comma here, it’s definitely strange if you read it out loud. Instead of the intended meaning being that you love your siblings separately and then you also love George Clooney and Katy Perry who are known celebrities, it comes off as being that your siblings are George Clooney (brother) and Katy Perry (sister) which is likely not true.

Let’s look at the same example with the Oxford comma implemented into the ending of the sentence.

Example

I love my siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry.

From this re-written example with the Oxford comma included, it becomes more clearly that the subject known, as ‘I’ loves his or her siblings, George Clooney, and Katy Perry. It’s clearly distinguished in this case that the siblings are not the famous celebrities and that they are separate people. However, if you are really opposed to the Oxford comma, you can re-structure the sentence so that it can make sense grammatically and you won’t have to insert the serial comma for it to work.

Example

I love George Clooney, Katy Perry and my siblings.

In this re-written example, you don’t need the Oxford comma to clear up the ambiguity.

Unlike other debates, this debate within English grammar about the Oxford comma will never end. There are always going to be supporters and opposition to its usage. However, it’s important that every English learner or teacher be adaptable to its usage or non-usage. If your student wants to use the Oxford comma, they should be able to because it’s apart of how they learned English grammar and they are technically allowed to do so. If the teacher doesn’t want to teach the Oxford comma to their English students, they also should not have to if they don’t believe in it. We can learn and teach English in a world where the Oxford comma can exist and not exist.