Commas - Punctuation for Students

Writing | Grammar


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Oscar Wilde, a great British writer, once admitted to spending an entire morning removing a comma from a poem. Asked if that was all he had done, Wilde replied, By no means: on mature reflection, I put back the comma. If a great writer like Oscar Wilde had difficulty in deciding where and when to use a comma, what chance have the rest of us got? In this lesson I will teach you about the history of the comma and about how to use it. You will learn about clauses, ambiguity, the Oxford comma, question tags, coordinating conjunctions, coordinate adjectives, dates, and more. Do this lesson and you will be more confident in your ability to use the comma in your written English.

Oscar Wilde, a great British writer, once admitted to spending an entire morning removing a comma from a poem. Asked if that was all he had done, Wilde replied, “By no means: on mature reflection, I put back the comma.” If a great writer like Oscar Wilde had difficulty in deciding where and when to use a comma, what chance have the rest of us got? Notice that in that last conditional sentence, I placed an obligatory comma between the if clause and the result clause. This is one place that a comma must be used. Interestingly, you don’t have to use a comma if the if clause comes second, as it does in this very sentence. The precursor to the modern English comma was one of the three dots placed on the page by that bloke from Byzantium, Aristophanes. He had a dot at the top of the line, a dot in the middle of the line, and a dot on the baseline. Ari’s top dot represented the full stop; the dot in the middle, the comma. The word, comma, originally meant the short passage separated from the main clause by the middle dot, and not the dot itself. The dot itself was called the media distinctio, which is quite a mouthful, so it’s not hard to see why people started to call it the comma, instead. The true “Father of the Comma”, however, was Aldus Manutius, an Italian humanist, printer, and publisher. He designed the comma to look like a small ear, because he reasoned that it represented a pause where you don’t actually hear anything. This caused something of a scandal in an age where men’s ears were forbidden to be shown in public. But the comma quickly became adopted by all printers, and has remained the symbol of the short pause ever since. The acceptance of Aldus’ comma made the display of the male ear, outside of the bedroom, acceptable, which in turn led to the shortening of men’s hair and a proliferation of barber shops throughout Europe. As well as indicating a short pause, commas are also used to avoid ambiguity. Most of the time travellers don’t carry luggage with them. Most of the time, travellers don’t carry luggage with them. In the first sentence, we are saying that the majority of people who travel through time don’t carry luggage. In the second sentence, we are saying that travellers in general don’t carry luggage with them. Say them aloud and you will hear the natural pauses where the commas should be. Commas are most useful when dealing with lists. I love cooking frogs and motorcycles. What a bizarre thought! I love cooking, frogs, and motorcycles. Well, that sounds more normal at least, doesn’t it? That last comma after frogs is called the Oxford comma, and it’s optional. Use a comma to separate things from each other in a list and thus avoid confusion. Furthermore, we also use commas to set off certain adverbs such as, in fact, however, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, still, and furthermore. For some adverbs, however, the comma is optional, yet I tend to use them, too. These adverbs include so, yet, instead, too, and then. So, that’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Notice here that question tags are also set off with a comma, aren’t they? If there is any extra information which could be removed from a sentence, set it off with commas, too. This extra information, you won’t mind me saying, can be removed without damaging the main sentence, can’t it? The same is true, which means it is to be believed, for non-defining relative clauses. Coordinate adjectives, which are not as complex as they sound, modify the following nouns, and are separated by commas. This type of dull, boring grammar is not fun, but it isn’t too hard to learn, either. The coordinating conjunction, but, between the two independent clauses in the last sentence, tells us that we also need a comma. Richard says, “You should know when to use a comma after you have watched this video.” You can see that a comma is used to introduced a direct quotation, but a comma is not needed for reported speech. Richard told us that we ought to know… I created this video English lesson between February 4th, 2017 and February 7th, 2017. Note the commas in the dates. Page 3 Commas You can study the use of commas until the cows come home, but someone will always have a different opinion when it comes to the non-obligatory commas. My advice is, if in doubt, put a comma where you have a natural pause. It’s comma sense! And remember that cats have claws at the ends of their paws, while a comma is a pause at the end of a clause. That is, if we think about it a little, why little commas look a little like little ears.

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