Comma checker – a guide on using commas
Writers communicate meaning and intent with the words they use. There are, however, different ways of relating words that can only be communicated with a comma. Consider this example punctuation differences in a statement in a will from Albert Joseph’s guide “Put it in Writing!” (P. 210):
I hereby bequeath all of my worldly possessions to the first of my offspring, who lives a good life. (The first offspring is a nice kid.)
I hereby bequeath all of my worldly possessions to the first of my offspring who lives a good life. (One among the offspring may turn out nice, but it’s too early to tell which one.)
If one of the heirs contested the will because of the placement of the comma in the first example, the probate judge would need to know the rules of comma usage for restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses:
- Comma usage before the “who” restricts focus to the first offspring
- Omitting a comma renders the sentence open to future determination; it remains to be seen which of the offspring will live a good life.
Note: the probate judge might be especially grateful for the comma because the definition of a “good life” is also toxically ambiguous.
The comma checker guide, according to Albert Joseph
Albert Joseph, in his guide, promotes the use of commas during these seven situations:
- To separate independent clauses in a compound sentence
- To separate a conjunctive adverbs (nevertheless, however, therefore, furthermore, etc.) from the main clause of a sentence
- To separate a long introductory phrase or clauses from the main clause of a sentence
- To isolate nonrestrictive phrases, clauses, or appositives — see our opening example — from the rest of the sentence
- To separate items in a series
- To separate a quoted passage from the words used to introduce it
- To force a pause in any group of words if the absence of a comma might cause readers to misread or create ambiguity
Here’s a short quiz based on Mr. Joseph’s seven guidelines. Add a comma, if needed, in the following sentences. (The answer key is at the bottom.)
- He was grateful to be recognized and he showed his gratitude freely.
- Nevertheless I shall always remember his attitude.
- While I generally prefer the works of Hemingway sometimes I read Steinbeck.
- People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
- For dinner we roasted chicken mashed potatoes and gravy and peas.
- “I don’t believe” Mary said, “that the meal was all that good.”
- Raising flowers for Zelda was her main joy in life.
- Place a comma after “recognized.”
- Place a comma after “Nevertheless.”
- Place a comma after “Hemingway.”
- No comma required. The clause “who live in glass houses” is nonrestrictive.
- Place a comma after “chicken” and “gravy.”
- Place a comma after “believe” (before the closing quote).
- Comma placement depends on the writer’s intent. Commas around “for Zelda” mean that Zelda loves raising flowers. Without commas the sentence means that someone other than Zelda loves raising flowers for Zelda.
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