The Common Comma

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The Common Comma

A question mark and an exclamation mark - oh, what a lovely couple.

Recently, disputes have arisen on the subject of commas. We've decided, as a public service, to reprint these rules of punctuation from that inestimable tome, How to Parse, by the Reverend Edwin A Abbott, DD, published in 1883.

Abbott knew how to do this. He was an English clergyman. We liked the examples, too, and will proceed with the hilarious footnoting.

After this, don't tell me you don't know all about commas.

The Comma

The Comma (meaning "that which is cut off") marks the smallest "cutting off," or division of a sentence1.

I. Rule. – When a word is separated from its grammatical adjunct by any intervening phrase, the phrase should be preceded and followed by a Comma: –

  • The traveller, after alighting from his horse, entered the inn.
  • His conduct, according to his own account, is inexcusable.
  • The king, wearied by the woman's importunity, granted her request.
  • He endeavoured, in every possible way, to undermine his rival.
  • When, after hearing your explanation, I agreed to forgive you, I believed, in accordance with your assurance, that this was your first offence2.
  • Now, thought he, he had succeeded.
  • He frustrated all the efforts his friends were making for him, by his silly vanity3.

Hence4 the Comma is often used before and
after an Adverbial Clause, including a Subordinate Sentence, whether the sentence be (1) introduced by a Conjunction, or (2) implied in a Participle: –

(1) I replied, as soon as I had recovered my presence of mind, that I could not consent.

(2) I replied, on recovering my presence of mind, that I could not consent5.

A Comma will therefore necessarily be inserted between two Conjunctions : –

It was said that, when the Capitol was built, a human head was discovered amid the foundations.

It cannot be denied that, if this statement is true, your brother has acted most culpably6.

When a Subordinate Clause or Adverbial Phrase comes at the beginning of the sentence, the Comma is inserted after it, if the Clause or Phrase precedes the Subject of the Principal Verb –

(1) When I recovered my presence of mind, I replied, etc.

(2) On recovering my presence of mind, I replied, etc.

(3) Having recovered my presence of mind, I replied, etc.

(4) To be brief, there are but three courses open to us.

(5) The colonel having fallen, the major took the command.

The Comma is often used between co-ordinate sentences connected by Conjunctions: –

He went back to his home, and I went forward on my journey.

When a number of co-ordinate words have the same grammatical adjunct, all but the last are
followed by a Comma: –

(1) John, Thomas, and Henry came.

(2) I saw John, Thomas, and Henry.

(3) He was dutiful, kind, and brave.

(4) He is acting wisely, justly, and mercifully.

(5) She loved, honoured, and obeyed her husband7.

But, if words are in pairs, then each pair (even the last) is followed by a Comma8: –

(6) To carp and to criticize, to slander and to rebuke, to warn and to discourage, are very different actions9.

But sometimes, where "and" is repeated between a number of Co-ordinate Nouns the writer may regard them (1) as a mere list of names, all of one kind, requiring rapid enumeration, and therefore may omit the comma, or (2) as expressing different notions and may therefore insert commas. Compare –

(7) Havoc and spoil and ruin are my gain. – P. L. ii. 109.

(8) Where all is cliff, and copse, and sky. – Scott.

No doubt the omission of the comma here is more easy before the Verb, when the reader is hurrying on to the Verb, than after the Verb, where pauses are more natural.

A Noun used Vocatively or Appellatively must necessarily have no grammatical adjuncts,
and should therefore (unless uttered very passionately10) be marked off by Commas: –

Your conduct, Thomas, surprises me.

In all the above Examples the principle is the same, that the Comma denotes separation from the grammatical adjunct. But sometimes the Comma denotes the omission of the grammatical adjunct: –

To carp is easy; to criticize, difficult."

When a Subject is a lengthy Phrase, it is often separated from the Verb by a Comma, especially when the Subject-Phrase contains some Noun that might at a hasty glance be supposed to be the Subject of the Verb. The object of the Comma is to indicate that not the word immediately preceding the Verb, but the whole of the preceding phrase is the Subject of the Verb: –

(1) To resent injuries inflicted on the weak and helpless, is the duty of all.

(2) That he made a very great mistake, is clear.

A Comma is sometimes employed when a statement or speech is introduced as the Object of
a Verb, to mark a pause before the statement. But this is scarcely necessary or justifiable, except where the statement is in Apposition to a previous Noun: –

(1) Who does not know the well-known proverb, that seeing is believing?

(2) Some people seem scarcely aware of this principle, that all men are better contented to make
progress in small matters than to remain at a stand in great.

Where the Noun in Apposition intervenes between the Verb and its Object, the Comma is justifiable on the principle stated above; where there is no intervening Noun, the Comma is unjustifiable11.

It has been seen that, when the same Object follows several Verbs, the Comma is not inserted after the last Verb; but, when the same Object follows several Prepositions, the Comma is inserted after the last Preposition: –

(1) I am desirous of, and earnestly hoping for, an amicable settlement.

2) I am sent by, and acting as the representative of, a large number of my fellow-citizens.

The reason is that a Verb, being a more emphatic word than a Preposition, allows a greater stress to be laid upon it, and a longer pause after it. The Preposition, not allowing this, requires the aid of a Comma to denote the necessary pause. The purpose of the pause is to summarise, as it were, what has preceded, and to indicate that the Object is the Object not of the last Preposition alone, but of all the Prepositions.

Omission of the Comma. – When (I) an Adverb follows its Verb, or when (2) a subordinate sentence follows its principal Verb, there is not so much need of a pause or division, and consequently the Comma may be dispensed with. Compare –

  • Very gradually, his health and strength returned.
  • His health and strength returned very gradually.
  • As soon as he caught sight of me, he ran away.
  • He ran away as soon as he caught sight of me.

When the Subject-phrase is short, and the omission of the Comma produces no ambiguity, it is omitted: –

(1) What you say is very sensible.

(2) To be ignorant is to be weak.

Caution. – The Comma ought not to be inserted (1) before "that" introducing an Object-phrase, nor (2) before "that" introducing a Subject after "Preparatory it". Avoid the following: –

(1) The ambassador replied, that no interference was needed.

(2) It was the common belief, that the house was haunted by the ghost of a murdered woman12.

Editor's Note: That is more than enough of that. Aren't you glad you didn't have to write letters back in 1883, what with the pens and blotters and grammar police? Just try to put enough commas in your text to help people read along. And when in doubt –   reword the bleepin' sentence so you don't need so many of the cursed things.

The Literary Corner Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

16.04.18 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Not to be confused with other things that can be cut off.2Alternatively, you could stop talking like that, and say what you mean.3It is not necessary to put a comma here in the 21st Century. Also, do you get the feeling this guy knows some very dodgy characters?4Hence? Srsly?5Author's note: The Conjunction "that," not being capable of much stress, nor allowing much pause after it, often dispenses with the comma : – " Remember that in almost all business, it is best to make haste slowly."
6Are these two sentences connected? Is the brother implicated in this severed head business? Which Capitol is the Reverend talking about? We want to know if we should notify the DC police.7Don't get excited: it was the 19th Century, and they were deluded about these things.8Author's note: The reason is that in this case "and " is not inserted before the last pair. Hence the termination is somewhat abrupt; and, after an enumeration of the pairs, the reader requires a pause, as though to insert "these":– "(these) are very different actions."9Indeed they are.10We are always passionate in the Vocative and Appellate.11We are shocked – shocked, we tell you – at these unjustifiable Commas. When will the government do something?12In other words, please avoid unnecessary commas, especially around ghosts. They are all grammar nazis.

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