Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Grammar Etiquette: The Comma Chameleon

Bryan Grubbs is our in-house professor of the new Grammar Etiquette blog series, posted the second Wednesday of every month. He is an English teacher in Denton, TX.

The Comma Chameleon
1600 Chao Mein Ct., Birmingham, CA
Monday, December 17, 1997
The sentence was well thought out, well worded and, to be fair, perfect. Unfortunately, as the writer stared down at his masterpiece, he soon realized that he had no idea how to punctuate it. Sure there was a period at the end of the sentence, but how was he to know where the dreaded comma should go. This piece of punctuation, much like a chameleon, was meant to blend into its environment, unnoticed by the casual observer. Unfortunately, unlike the chameleon, its absence would not be so modestly overlooked. “Curse you Lord of Grammar,” he cried, shaking his sore, trembling fist into the air as tears began rolling down ink-stained cheeks.
It would turn out that the Lord of Grammar, a merciful yet vengeful soul, heeded to this poor man’s cry and sent to him an angel, a beacon of light in his darkest times. The man looked up to this symbol of peace and hope, eyes still damp from the liquid frustration welling in them. Not speaking a word, the figure spread its long arms out wide in an assumed gesture of acceptance. The man rose from his seat and approached the white robes, imitating the angel’s pose as he closed the distance between the two.
From nowhere, the angel’s hand moved faster than lightning, striking the man against the cheek and leaving a red impression of a perfectly sculpted palm and fingers. He crashed to the floor, spilling against the hard wood, his head rebounding from its impact with the brick like any other crumpled manuscript, of which there were many. Bending over and leaning its immaculate face close to the man’s, the lips formed words of the sweetest sound, ringing in his ears for years to come. “Bi**h, man the **ck up.”

For many of us, placement of the ever important comma can be a daunting task. Often times we neglect to put them where they truly belong, only counting on our abilities to speak the text aloud and throw in a comma where there’s a natural pause.
 Unfortunately, this method isn’t always reliable. What I am here to give to you today is the HANDFUL (that’s right, I said ‘handful’) of rules that are easy to remember, yet essential to proper punctuation placement. How easy is it? I used each and every of the comma rules, outside of proper construction, at least once in the short excerpt you just finished reading.

An Introduction If You Please…

By this, I of course mean an introductory statement. Words like Yes, However, For Instance, and Well will often set a tone for the ideas that follow, particularly if it is in contrast to the tone used previously. In this case, these words are separated from the main clause by a comma.


• However, the dress looked better on her sister.

• Well, I suppose we could return it and find something better.

• Yes, I think that is the best suggestion.

Lists, Series, Inventories, Catalogues, and Redundant Terms…

Three or more words or phrases are separated by commas. These aren’t just used for listing out nouns, but also for offering an overabundance of adjectives describing a single subject or listing out phrases such as a list of chores. The comma between the last two items on the list is not essential, but is grammatically suggested.


• It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad day.

• I need to stop by the store for bacon, ham, pork chops, and kosher pickles.

• At college I learned how to sleep walk to class, pull an all-nighter, sleep with my eyes open, negotiate grades and do my own laundry.


A clause is, more or less, an idea.

An independent clause is a complete sentence, meaning it has a minimum of a subject and a verb. In laymen’s terms, something performs an action.

The most simplistic of these is the simple statement, “I am.” In this, I is the subject and am, meaning ‘to be’, is the verb.

Two independent clauses can be combined in a single sentence with the help of a

coordinating conjunction to form what is known as a compound sentence.

There are a total of seven coordinating conjunctions, easily identified by the acronym, F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.

For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So paired with a comma, these conjunctions are the glue that binds two complete sentences together.


• I am awesome, but my teacher doesn’t see it that way.

• The tickets were on sale, so we each bought two of them.

• I know that it’s perfectly legal, yet I feel so dirty when I do it.

Incomplete This…

On the darker side of the clauses exists the dependent clause.

Like that friend that’s constantly hitting you up for five bucks, these clauses have everything necessary to make a complete sentence, but still can’t stand on their own and thus are constantly hanging around the independents.

How do clauses go bad and become dependents?

Their drug of choice is something called the subordinating conjunction.

Unlike coordinating conjunctions, these little devils don’t have a clever acronym or complete list.
Subordinating conjunctions are words that attach themselves to the beginning of a clause to make it an incomplete sentence.

Words like before, while, although, after, and because suddenly alert the reader to expect more than this simple statement and combine with an independent clause to create a complex sentence.

The nasty trick here is that, if the dependent clause comes first, then a comma needs to separate the two. If the independent clause comes first, then there is no comma. Allow me to demonstrate:

Example A:

• While you’re waiting, please enjoy a complimentary foot massage.

• Please enjoy a complimentary foot massage while you’re waiting.

Example B:

• After the concert, we headed to another club.

• We headed to another club after the concert.

Example C:

• Because we failed to tighten the faucet, the basement is now flooded.

• The basement is now flooded because we failed to tighten the faucet.

So You Say…

This one is a no-brainer, or at least it should be; commas are used to separate action from dialogue. The only real rule that I constantly have to remind students of is, with only one very rare exception, punctuation goes before quotation – always, always, always. Whether you’re ending action to open dialogue or ending dialogue to introduce action, the comma will always be in front of the quotation mark.


• Bob said, “I like your tie.”

• “Thanks,” I replied.

• “If you’re not doing anything later,” Bob began, “Maybe we could go tie shopping together.”

• “Hell no!”--No action = No comma.

Butting In…
An interjection is a snippet of parenthetical information added into a sentence.

As the name suggests, parenthetical information is any additional information on a subject that you would add in parenthesis.

In this case, however, we are foregoing the parenthesis and using commas to push this information into the middle of the sentence.

The big way to know for sure if it is an interjection or not, is to take it out. If the sentence still makes sense without the extra info, then it is indeed an interjection and should be surrounded on both sides by a comma.


• I was hanging out with Cubid, a loveable little cherub, when we came across the pirate ship.

• Driving through Dallas, the city of my birth, can be a frightening thing at night.

• My favorite dish, the number seven special, was taken off the menu for health reasons.

The OTHER White Meat…
Geographical locations and dates are fairly straightforward. Commas separate words from words and numbers from numbers.

That means that street, city and state would all be separated by commas, but there wouldn’t be any between the street number and the street or the state and zip code.

It’s the same with dates. Commas go between the day and month as well as the numeric day and calendar year, but not between the month and numeric day.

Friday, July 13, 2012 – 2469 Shabangme Drive, Southlake, TX 76092 - the place to be.

The final rule, which isn’t really a well-established rule, consists of pausing a sentence to offer an opposing thought. I almost throw this in as an interjection, because it’s non-essential information, but it generally comes at the end and is rarely complimentary.

This is best observed with examples.

• He was merely ignorant, not stupid.

• The chimpanzee seemed reflective, almost human.

• You’re one of the senator’s close friends, aren’t you?

• The speaker seemed innocent, even gullible.

And now I challenge you. Go, be free, create great works of art without further troubling me with your previously misguided use of the comma.
Continued abuse of this poor punctuation piece will force me to place a call to CPS, the Comma Protective Services, and have it taken away from you. Thanks.

Bryan Grubbs is an English and Art teacher. He is also a member of Greater Fort Worth Writers and is an active member of the GFW Writers critique group. Members of the group will tell you he can pick out redundant words at forty feet and is quite willing to show what paragraphs or sentences are not compelling. He is a husband and father of three beautiful girls, enjoys writing science fiction/ urban fantasy/ horror, sketching, or playing video games in his free time.
Have a question or comment? Let Bryan know by clicking on comments and leaving your question or comments.


Ruby Johnson said...

I didn't know I had a problem until I read your post. Now, I'm evaluating every sentence I write.

Anonymous said...

You took what could be a boring subject and made it interesting.Every blogger who posts has the responsibility to communicate an idea in a way that is vivifying for the reader and provides an experience, not a lecture. You succeeded.

Anonymous said...

Bryan. Thank you for doing a blog. Cute kid. Somebody told me the best to figure the need of commas when writing story is to read the material aloud. If I/the writer needs to take a breath, then a reader might appreciate one too. I can't believe I wrote this note without the use of one comma

Anne said...

Very informative and useful post. Thank you!

Kimberly Walton said...

This is great, Bryan! Thanks so much for sharing. I especially like FANBOYS, what a clever way to remember that. Now, let's talk about diagramming sentences ... I could use that from time to time. ;-)

Bryan said...

Thanks for the feedback, guys! And Kim, I'll get on that either next month or the following. :)

Anti Money Laundering said...

A good grammar can really boost someone's confidence.

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