Thursday, September 16, 2010

Self-Editing Tips — Comma Review Part 2


Another use of commas that raises a lot of questions is the introductory comma—or more specifically, the comma used to set off introductory material in a sentence.

Let’s look at the following sentences without commas. Try to determine if a comma is needed, and if so, where the comma should go. (The examples I’m using come from Punctuation Plain and Simple by Edgar C. and Jean A. Alward.)

1. Walking through the woods on a brisk fall day can provide us with many rewarding experiences.

2. Having checked all accounts receivable the clerk concluded that somebody must have given him $24 too much.

3. To achieve the highest standards possible the school committee hired the best-qualified teachers available.

4. Without any obligation order your sample record today.

5. In a few cases you will find a winner.

6. At the edge of the deep Main woods near Moosehead Lake he built a small log cabin.

7. Consequently Tom must make the decision.

Okay, now let’s look at the answers and the reasons we use or don’t use a comma in these sentences.

1. Walking through the woods on a brisk fall day can provide us with many rewarding experiences.
This sentence doesn’t need a comma. The gerund phrase (Walking through the woods on a brisk fall day) is the subject of the sentence and can’t be separated from its predicate (can provide).

2. Having checked all accounts receivable, the clerk concluded that somebody must have given him $24 too much.
This is a participial (adjective) phrase describing the clerk. So it needs to be set apart from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Even if we moved that phrase to after clerk, we would need to set it off with commas: The clerk, having checked all accounts receivable, concluded that somebody must have given him $24 too much.

Hint: If you can put the phrase from the beginning of the sentence into the sentence somewhere, it needs a comma when used as an introduction to the sentence.

3. To achieve the highest standards possible, the school committee hired the best-qualified teachers available.
This is an infinitive phrase (to achieve is an infinitive: to + a verb). Again, for clarity and because of the natural pause after such a phrase, we need the comma.

4. Without any obligation, order your sample record today.
This does need a comma for clarity. This prepositional phrase has a natural pause after it, and therefore would use the comma. However . . .

5. In a few cases you will find a winner.
Usually, if one short prepositional phrase begins the sentence, it doesn’t need a comma after it. And since the trend is going toward fewer commas, this is a good place to delete one. But . . .

6. At the edge of the deep Maine woods near Moosehead Lake, he built a small log cabin.
There’s always the exception. *smile* Because this sentence starts out with three prepositional phrases, we need the comma—to indicate a pause, if for no other reason. Without it, reading this sentence makes me breathless.

7. Consequently, Tom must make the decision.
Single adverbs at the beginning of sentences—especially those that end in –ly—usually have a comma after them. Then and now would be the exception. If these words flow smoothly into the sentence (think Now what? or Then let’s go.), don’t put a comma after them. If it’s a “throwaway” word, like well or oh, then definitely put in the comma.


I hope this discussion on the introductory comma is helpful to you. Please leave a comment if you have more questions about this, or any other punctuation/editing confusion.

2 comments:

Paul Phillips said...

Margie, in your explanation of the 7th sentence, you mention "throwaway" words like "well" and "oh". By that description, do you mean that these types of words are undesirable when writing?

Margie Vawter said...

Depends on what you're writing, Paul. But generally for fiction, narrative nonfiction—everything but the most formal writing—they're fine to put in. What I mean by "throwaway" is that they don't add anything (nor take away from) to the sentence. The sentence will still maintain its meaning without those words.