Ranly’s rules for those pesky commas

Journalism professor Don Ranly sets us straight on why and when to use commas.

Journalism professor Don Ranly sets us straight on why and when to use commas

If you’ve spent some time editing copy or working around writers, you’ve discovered at least three attitudes people have regarding commas.

1. Those who hate commas. They quote Mark Twain as saying, “As to the comma, when in doubt, leave it out.” I don’t think Twain ever said that. He did say, “As to the adjective, when in doubt, leave it out.” That’s a bit different. These comma haters take commas out whenever ever they can, or they go by the ridiculous rule, place a comma only where you want the reader to pause. How dumb is that!

Now if the subject of commas makes you comatose, for heaven’s sakes, stop reading this. If you don’t care about being correct and consistent in your use of commas, there’s nothing I can do for you. Go away.

2. Those who use commas for no particular reason other than that they feel better—or that they take them out because they feel better. The sentence seems to need them or doesn’t seem to need them.

3. And those who put commas everywhere. They love them. They will separate every set of adjectives and every compound subject and compound predicate with a comma every time.

I hope to persuade those of you who don’t think so that there are clear guidelines for many of the uses of the comma—guidelines that you can use every day of your writing and editing life. I shall go through these guidelines one by one, and then in the end, I shall present a page that I have given thousands of students and attendees of my seminars over the years.

Now I am not denying that you might have been taught different rules or that grammar books, even good ones, might have different guidelines that those I shall give you. What I promise you is that my rules are practical and for the most part, quite simple to follow. Most of all, they will enable you and your staff to be on the same page when you edit copy.

Staffs waste an enormous amount of time and energy when they don’t have guidelines. One person puts the comma in, the next person takes it out, and the battle continues. Nonsense.

Ranly’s rules: Punctuating for consistency

1. Always place a comma after words in a series but not before and or or unless the meaning is unclear. So there you go. The first rule is not an always. It also contradicts what many if not most of us were taught in grammar school about so-called “serial commas.” The rule comes from the Associated Press. You need not follow it—but why not?

Here’s an example AP cites as an exception: “I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.”

2. Always place a comma after an introductory dependent clause in a complex sentence. I know, that’s a mouthful. But it’s all a matter of vocabulary. Words and putting together words are what writers and editors work with.

Suppose you were in an operating room, and the surgeon said to a nurse, “Hand me that sharp thing over there. I don’t know what you call it.” Wow. Or if a carpenter wanted to drive in a nail and asked someone to hand him that thing with the steel head on it. Not too professional, eh?

Yet writers sometimes brag about not knowing grammar. They rely on editors to catch their errors and save them from embarrassment. The usual statement is, “Well, I used to know it.” Well, maybe.

Some vocabulary for the unwashed

A clause has a subject and a predicate.

A sentence is an independent clause. It can stand by itself; it expresses a complete thought.

There are three types of sentences:

A simple sentence has one or more subjects and one or more predicates.

A complex sentence has a dependent subordinate clause and an independent clause or a relative dependent clause and an independent clause.

A dependent clause usually cannot stand alone. It begins with a subordinating conjunction, words like until, after, if, because,
since, etc.

A relative clause cannot stand alone either. It begins with a relative pronoun: who, what, which, that.

A compound sentence has at least two complete sentences. They are either joined by coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so), or, if the two complete thoughts are closely related, by a semicolon.

A complex compound sentence has at least one complex sentence and at least one independent clause.

A student once asked me why I called a word a gerund. I told him: “I don’t know. What do you want to call it? Why do you call a chair a chair?

If you don’t understand the words in Guideline No. 2, take a look at the definitions in the side bar. For most of you, this is just a refresher.

Here’s an example of a complex sentence that begins with a dependent clause.

Example: Since you began reading this, you have become more confused than ever.

Note the comma before the subject of the main clause. This is an every-time rule. There are NO exceptions.

Note, however, if the complex sentence begins with the independent clause, there is no comma before the dependent clause.

Example: You have become more confused than ever since you began reading this.

3. Always place a comma after an introductory independent clause in a compound sentence before the coordinating conjunction.

Example: She had a great grammar teacher in the seventh grade, and she has benefited from that experience all her life.

Note the comma before the and. Again, this is an every-time rule. There are NO exceptions. However, if the pronoun she did not follow the and, the sentence would not be compound, and it would not have a comma before the and.

Example: She had a great grammar teacher in the seventh grade and has benefited from that experience all her life.

Here we do not have a compound sentence but a compound predicate. Never separate a compound predicate (or a compound subject) with a single comma.

I’m sure you agree that this is more than enough for my first column on commas. Warning: There’s more to come. Promise: It will get less complicated. Don’t hesitate to contact me with questions or disputes at ranlyd@missouri.edu or www.ranly.com.

Don Ranly is professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism where he taught for 32 years. Ranly has worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, a weekly columnist, a radio host and television producer, director and host.


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