|Grammar bug - |
The Comma Butterfly
Here’s a look at proofreading your commas.This isn’t a complete grammar lesson on weak interruptions, non-restrictive relative clauses and all that jazz. It’s a reminder of four of the main uses of commas and some hints on errors to spot.
Check for consistency with your listing commas if you’re using Oxford commas. An Oxford (or Harvard or serial or series) comma is conventional in US English and is the house style for Oxford University Press. It’s a comma added before ‘and’ (or ‘or’) in a list:
We read Dogger, Matilda, Skellig, and Holes.
An Oxford comma can add to clarity if the items you are listing include the word ‘and’:
We read Five Children and It, Swallows and Amazons, and Noughts and Crosses.
Sometimes an Oxford comma will remove ambiguity. An infamous photo caption for a country singer stated:
The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
Of course, that caption needs a comma before ‘and’ (though I’d suggest changing the order of the items in a list like that).
Oxford commas can be used only when necessary for clarity, or always. Checking for consistency needs to be done with either option.
You can use semicolons to separate if there are commas in the items listed:
We read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See; Not Now, Bernard; Clarice Bean, That’s Me; and Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad Day.
Check bracketing commas
Bracketing (or isolating) commas surround a word or a phrase which is not essential to the sentence. The sentence makes sense with or without the words between the commas. Bracketing commas always come in pairs. Check you haven’t omitted that second comma:
It is difficult, I have found, to proofread your own writing.
We’re going on a hunt, for a bear, through long, swishy grass.
The last example also appears in my article on dashes and your writing style, or the sentence you’re checking, may make dashes more appropriate than bracketing commas.
|The 88 Butterfly, or maybe|
comma and semi colon?
Check gapping commas
Gapping commas are used in sentences which have a word or words omitted to avoid repetition. Instead of
Roald Dahl wrote Matilda, Shirley Hughes wrote Dogger and Louis Sachar wrote Holes.
gapping commas allow
Roald Dahl wrote Matilda, Shirley Hughes, Dogger and Louis Sachar, Holes.
In the next sentence, the gap is ‘favourite writing location was’ –
Roald Dahl’s favourite writing location was a shed, Maya Angelou’s, a hotel room, and Edith Wharton’s, her bed.
There is a natural rhythm for gapping commas, you can check for them (and correct their absence) if you read aloud.
Check joining commas
You’ll find prescriptive grammarians care about joining commas. The convention is that if you have two potentially complete sentences either side of a comma you need a coordinating conjunction before the second one, like
and , but, nor, or, so, while, yet
to avoid a comma splice. There are so many examples of good writing awash with comma splices that it’s difficult to take this ‘rule’ seriously. Checking is worth doing, though, as you might find an occasion where a semicolon is appropriate. Semicolons separate closely related clauses where you don’t want the finality of a full stop. Coordinating conjunctions do not follow semicolons, and reading aloud helps spot an appropriate location for one. Semicolons are falling out of use, but you might like to indulge. They are not just “to show you went to college”, as Kurt Vonnegut joked – but they are an endangered species. Use with care!
More on punctuation marks in future Proofreading Tips…
In the meantime, click here for Catriona's previous Proofreading Tips.
Butterfly images credit - By Charlesjsharp (Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Charlesjsharp (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.