Don't comma 'round here no more

Commas are the subtlest, briefest stops-shorter than a semicolon, a mere pause-intended to pass almost unnoticed in a sentence. They should not draw attention to themselves, but simply direct our focus, like lighting in an art gallery. Their job is to reassure, not to dazzle. In the past I have focused on occasions when a comma was needed; now, I'll focus on occasions when it isn't.

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Don't use commas to set off identifying words unless "there can be only one."

"Commas yield the most errors of any category of punctuation," notes Ben Yagoda in "How to Not Write Bad," "and their use in identification yields the highest percentage of comma errors." By "identification," Yagoda means a combination of a noun and an adjacent word that identifies the noun. Example (adapted from Yagoda):

I saw the movie "Highlander" with my friend Bill.

Two sets of nouns here ("Highlander" and Bill), paired with two identifying words that also happen to be nouns (movie and friend). No commas. Why not? Because "Highlander "is not the only movie in the world, and Bill is not my only friend. Now let's sprinkle in some details and watch what happens:

I saw director Russell Mulcahy's 1986 movie, "Highlander," with my oldest friend, Bill.

Whoa. Commas separate "friend" from "Bill," and commas completely set off "Highlander" in the middle of the sentence. From zero commas to three-what's up with that? Well, the details add up to something unique: you have only one "oldest friend" (Bill) and Russell Mulcahy made only one movie in 1986 (unless you count music videos, which I don't). If the identifying word describes that noun and only that noun, use a comma. If not, not.

Thus:

My opposing counsel John is courteous (if I have more than one opposing counsel).

My opposing counsel, John, is courteous (if John is the only one).

Don't use commas to link independent clauses.

Have you heard of the "comma splice"? It's what happens when a comma is called upon to do the work that ought to be done by a period, semicolon, or conjunction. The result is unsettling, the grammatical equivalent of truly slapdash home repair, the kind we used to do before YouTube. Observe:

I wanted to write about commas, now I'm veering off into a rant.

Deep breath. See that comma? It is splicing together two independent clauses (that is, clauses that can stand on their own as sentences). This comma will not stand. Here's what will:

I wanted to write about commas. Now I'm veering off into a rant.

I wanted to write about commas; now I'm veering off into a rant.

Only periods and semicolons have the heft to stitch together independent clauses. Or if you absolutely must keep the comma, pair it with a supporting conjunction, thus:

I wanted to write about commas, but now I'm really veering off into a rant.

Any of these three options produce a trim, squared-away sentence. But wait, you say: what about however? Is however a conjunction? No. However is a bit of mushy throat-clearing; because it doesn't say anything meaningful about the relationship between the clauses, it lacks the crispness and direction of real conjunctions (and, but, or, so, nor, yet).

I wanted to write about commas, however now I'm veering off into a rant.

Nope, that's not going to do it.

I wanted to write about commas; however, now I'm veering off into a rant.

Better-ish. I'm not a fan of however or its cousin moreover in legal writing. Once upon a time they seemed to me the essence of smooth, smooth lawyering, and now they just seem like an invitation to misuse commas. Best to edit the howevers out of the final version of whatever you're writing.

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Don't use commas to set off restrictive dependent clauses.

Quick reminder for the busy: a dependent clause can't stand on its own as a sentence. A restrictive clause changes the meaning of the sentence. So if your sentence consists of an independent clause followed by a restrictive dependent clause, please do not comma 'round here no more. Thus:

I will second-chair your trial if we can go to Can Can Wonderland afterwards.

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Don't use commas after short introductory phrases.

Many of us like to open our sentences with introductory phrases. That's fine, as long as we bear in mind that short phrases and short sentences do not typically require the services of a comma. To wit:

Out of this domestic chaos emerged a placid and resolute truce.

At breakfast we consumed a reprehensible buffet of assorted Nordic things.

No commas after chaos or breakfast (thanks to Karen Elizabeth Gordon's book "The Well-Tempered Sentence" for the examples). Both sentences begin with an adverbial phrase modifying the verb of the sentence; if your sentence begins the same way, try omitting the comma.

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Don't use commas when starting a sentence with a conjunction.

Those of us of a certain age remember when starting a sentence with a conjunction was not the done thing. Times have changed; we've adapted. But there is one thing we still cannot abide, which is setting off that introductory conjunction with a comma.

And, if you do you will upset us.

So don't. Just don't. Thank me later.

Published: Fri, Jun 07, 2019