# The proper usage of commas?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by wegs, Jul 25, 2013.

1. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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I've often thought that commas should be placed in pairs, in sentences. Example:

Bob, after thinking things over, decided to go to the store. << this would be correct usage of commas, correct?

My question is...is this correct or incorrect:
But, Bob was right. << does that sentence NOT need a comma at all?

Bob bought oranges, bananas, strawberries, and wine at the store.
Would there be no comma after strawberries in this sentence?

Finally:
Susan, Bob's sister, didn't want to go to the store, afterall.
Is a comma necessary after 'store?'

It's one of those pet peeves that I run across from time to time, and I wonder...sheesh, what is the RIGHT way to use commas?

3. ### SarkusHippomonstrosesquippedalo phobeValued Senior Member

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It does not need a comma.

When listing things then there is generally no need for a comma after the penultimate one (before "and").
However if it helps avoid confusion then it can be appropriate to include the comma.
An example would be: "Bob bought some fruit such as bananas, oranges, strawberries, and some wine."
Here that last comma helps prevent confusion so that people don't think that wine is being classified as a fruit.
Or "Bob invited his brothers, Peter and Paul, and Mary."
Here the final comma helps distinguish Mary as separate from the listing of brothers.

I wouldn't use a comma there.
My rule of thumb is to use a comma if you want to introduce a pause.
Since there would be no pause between store and afterall, I wouldn't use a comma.

5. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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Oh thank you for this! This has been bugging me for quite some time.
I learned something very new; the addition of "some" before wine is very sensible. I can see where it draws the distinction between the prior list and stands out. Interesting however that you wouldn't pause before "afterall" in my last example.
That will take some getting used to, as I tend to use commas to "invent" pauses. Haha

In that given sentence, would you say it is grammatically incorrect to have three commas as shown in my example? Is that also why you are leaving the last one out (before afterall)? Just wondering.

Thank you again!

7. ### JeevesValued Senior Member

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1,612
I would say thet "after all" didn't belong in the sentence. After what? In order for that to make sense, there must have been a previous mention of Susan wanting to go to the store. But in that case, the phrase 'Bob's sister' is redundant here. Punctuation can only be understood in the context of meaning: it clarifies meaning. Commas indicate a brief pause, providing a moment for the hearer or reader to assimilate the meaning of what's been said before a shift in thought.

8. ### SarkusHippomonstrosesquippedalo phobeValued Senior Member

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7,475
One additional thing: it is "after all" and not "afterall".

Grammatically incorrect? I couldn't say for sure, but I don't think it's right to ever use a comma before a prepositional phrase unless necessary for clarification (as mentioned earlier).
In your example it is not necessary for clarification - so don't use one.

You would use a comma, however, after the phrase if you begin a sentence with it: "After all, it's not as though he wants to" etc, as this is an introductory phrase.

9. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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3,364
Yes, I see what you're saying. But I use the word after all to indicate that something is to be considered or something is going to happen that you didn't think would happen.

I use it all the time. I may say "you should do what he want, after all, that would be the right thing to do."
That's just an example but I'm showing more of HOW I use the word.

And if I use the above example and leave out "bob's sister," I would still use it. It declares a surprise. Right?
Like "you decided to come to the party, after all."
Designed to show you changed your mind.

I'm open to suggestions and if I shouldn't use it, then maybe I should stop. Thank you Jeeves

I understand. I replied above as a joint reply.
Thank you very much for this help.

Will take a little getting used to, because I overuse/misuse commas. :/

10. ### KitemanSARegistered Senior Member

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624
As I recall from a grammer style book used by the US Navy years back, commas have two basic functions.

The first is to designate a portion of a sentance that can be removed without changing the fundamental meaning of the sentance. For example, my lead in phrase could have been left out without changing the basic message that commas have two functions. There is only ONE comma because the phrase begins the sentance. It would need two if I had written "Commas have, as I recall..." so that the phrase was in the middle of the sentance. Trailing phrases also need but one.

The second is to distinguish between items in a listing of three or more items. I forget what the book said about whether to add one before the "and", but I always did. (Note a trailing phrase there).

11. ### Fraggle RockerStaff Member

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24,690
Then why didn't you do so in that one?

Answer: because it only needs one. But this sentence is a little awkward. Better to rearrange it: I've often thought that, in a sentence, commas should be paired. You end up with a pair of commas, but that's just a coincidence. Next time you may have one or three. Obviously that rule is bogus!

Yes. But this sentence can be rearranged in two different ways, changing the number of commas required.

After thinking things over, Bob decided to go to the store. (One comma)
Bob decided to go to the store after thinking things over. (Zero commas) Note that this construction does not make it clear whether it was the decision that took place after the thinking, or the trip to the store. But since that ambiguity is unimportant, there's no harm.​

If you're writing dialog in a story or a novel (in which case the sentence would be enclosed in quotation marks) the comma would represent a slight pause in colloquial speech. If there's no comma, it means that the character didn't pause there. It's the difference between Bob using "but" as a synonym for "however" (which requires the comma--and is crappy grammar so you'd be careful which character's mouth you put it in, certainly not the philosophy professor), and Bob simply speaking a sentence fragment, perhaps the second half of a sentence which was rudely interrupted by another character (which takes no comma, although you might choose to end the first half of the sentence with an ellipsis and begin the second half the same way, to help the reader navigate through this complicated dialog).

But if this is your own writing for a class, a letter to the editor, or anything loftier than an internet discussion board, you should know that it's frowned on to begin a written sentence with a conjunction; "however" (an adverb) is more appropriate. And as I noted, never use "but" as a synonym for "however" in serious writing; it's just plain wrong.

That is called the serial comma and grammarians joke that it generates as much controversy as a serial killer. It's amusing to note that Americans call it the "Oxford comma," insisting that it's a stuffy formality used in the U.K., against which we Americans must be as vigilant as the British spelling of "centre" and "colour"... while the British call it the "Harvard comma" and blame it on us!

In fact, it goes in and out of vogue every couple of generations. When I was in grade school in the 1940s and 50s, the serial comma had been considered proper for quite some time, and Americans were starting to get tired of it. So new textbooks taught us not to use it. Today, it's well-established in American stylebooks that the serial comma must never be used. Remember that stylebooks are written by and for journalists, and every millimeter of space they can squeeze out of an article is one more millimeter that can be sold for advertising. These are the same people who tried to convince us that it was correct to write "Mr. Jones' hat" thirty years ago, but we successfully resisted that atrocity.

So no, don't use the serial comma.

Before we get into that, allow me to be the first to break the news to you that there is no such word as "afterall." It is "after all," regardless of how you're using it. Back on topic, no, I would not put a comma between "store" and "after." If you're writing dialog and you want to show the reader that the character speaking that sentence put a pause between the two words, then just use an ellipsis: that's what it's for.

Susan didn't want to go to the store... after all.​

The speaker appears to be a bit disgusted that Susan has changed her mind for the fourth or fifth time. If she only changed it once, well hey, that's what "after all" means!

The comma was invented to render a pause in spoken language visible in written language. So just start there. Forget the "rule" about commas having to be paired. They don't, and I can't imagine who told you that!

If necessary, speak your sentence out loud two or three times and notice where you pause. Then write it that way.

That said, common sense can overturn any rule. The following example is surely apocryphal since no one I know has ever found the source, but it's a great example anyway.

The author of a book is said to have inscribed the dedication:
"To my parents, Ayn Rand and God."​

The serial comma would certainly have been appropriate in this case.

12. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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3,364
Laughing out loud for REAL!
Serial comma lmao!
I needed a laugh.

I will comment later; I have some questions on what u replied.
Thank u for taking the time!

13. ### KitemanSARegistered Senior Member

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624
But these two sentences carry different meanings. The first implies a simple timing wherein the thinking happened before but did not necessarily take part in the decision. The second implies a decision because of the thought.

14. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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3,364
Bob decided to go to the store after thinking things over.

Why no comma between store and after?

Fraggle >> I can't multiquote on my phone well, so, I'm just pulling that one out for clarity.

15. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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3,364
Good points!
From a grammar perspective, I think they each should have one comma.

16. ### iceauraValued Senior Member

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24,422
Bob, thinking things over, after, decided to go to the store.

That changes the reference of "after".

The rule is to say what you mean clearly. The rule is to say what you mean, clearly. The rule is clearly to say what you mean. The rule is, clearly, to say what you mean.

I almost always use the serial comma, because I want to be able to omit it and mean it. I want to be able to say the parents of my book are God and Ayn Rand, have people laugh at the occasional intentional zeugmas, and so forth.

17. ### SarkusHippomonstrosesquippedalo phobeValued Senior Member

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The same implication and ambiguity exists in both sentences.
The two arrangements are synonymous - and it makes zero difference whether you say "After X, Y" or "Y after X".
Whatever implication you see in the word "after" in the second option also exists in the first.

18. ### iceauraValued Senior Member

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24,422
They lean on their context differently, carry different implications of reference. In the first, there is no implication of doubt as to when or whether Bob went to the store, no idea that someone might be suggesting he went to the store first and then thought, or never went to the store because he had used up his time thinking, or that these possibilies were immediate. It's a natural narrative, nothing emphasized. The second is how one would phrase the response to such suggestions or possibilities - {No, you are wrong}, Bob went to the store after thinking things over. And that lean on the context is one reason there should be no comma after "store" in that one usually - it interrupts, and it should be included only if the disconnection possibility is intended, say if there was a question not about when Bob went (go Bob go! for grownups) but about whether he actually went somewhere else, say.

In a machine translation they might be synonymous, which is one of the problems the programmers of translation and grammar software are trying to overcome.

19. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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It does subtly change things, doesn't it?

Clearly, the rule is to say what you mean.

Changing things around as we are, it goes from sounding helpful to sounding self righteous.

Still lol @ "serial comma"

(I also put things in quotes too much, I've been told. :/)

20. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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In truth, I would use the comma after store no matter what.

In this example you give, above.

21. ### iceauraValued Senior Member

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24,422
In which case you would be misleading the reader sometimes, depending on what you meant.

In the original, the word "after" references the act of Bob thinking and describes the timing of the decision to go to the store. In this one, it refers to some event not present, something that happened before the thinking as well as the decision and the trip to the store, and describes the timing of the thinking.

22. ### wegsMatter & Pixie DustValued Senior Member

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:=PPP

when i lived up north, i wrote for a city pub, and the editor told me commas should come in pairs! lol
i should send him this post of yours. hehe okay, very well, i will agree.

think we discussed this one already

i am in sales/marketing and do a lot of writing from an advertising perspective, and letters to prospects and clients are what i'm mainly focused on, as the purpose of my thread here.

this is good to know. i want to say i knew that about ''however'' but always nice to have a refresher.

i enjoy learning what you know, fraggle.
texted a friend tonight about the 'serial comma' and he thought that was hilarious. he said if it were a crime, i'd be locked up for life.

isn't that interesting though? how the nuances of language and what is acceptable, changes? you are right. i don't noticed commas used as often as even say ten years ago.

duly noted lol

the news was already broken to me earlier in the thread. you were late to the ''after all'' party. you know, i don't care for the two words, so i may stop using it. so there.

haha true, but could mean peaceful resignation.

imagine no more, i told you who...above.

that's why i like the 'serial comma' because i pause a lot, even in everyday speech. true story.

yes it would have. lol thanks for taking the time to go through this.

got it, thank you.

okay...here is an example of something i had to write for work. please select what you feel suits best, grammatically speaking.

The cost for the project will be $10k salary, per consultant; the project will last 48 weeks. OR The cost for the project will be$10k salary per consultant, and the project will last 48 weeks.

OR

The cost for the project will be \$10k salary per consultant. The project will last 48 weeks.

*I wrote the top option.

A coworkers said that she thought I shouldn't use the semi colon, and instead, I should make it a continous sentence, with the word 'and.'

And when listing numbers...when to use a comma?

Bob, Jane and Nancy came in 4th, 1st, and 10th place, respectively. << yes? no?

23. ### kwhilbornBannedBanned

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2,088
Fraggle Rocker gives the best answer here, but it is long and perhaps complicated to someone unfamiliar with commas.

You should write the way you talk. If you pause for breathing or want to pause the speech then insert a comma.

If, you, pause, between, each, word, then, you, should, put, a, comma, between, each, word.

If you have a sentence that you want to have with different segments but no pause, use a semi-colon.

i.e. My wife walks very slow down the hill; (no pause here) she has flat feet.

I could write that also with a pause (for breath).

i.e My wife walks very slow down the hill, (pause) she has flat feet.

The best way to know where to punctuate (at first) is to read your work aloud how you want it read.

If you pause for breath or emphasis then place a comma. Easy as that.