In my recent article about apostrophes, I promised to address another punctuation point that people often misuse and abuse: the comma. As I tell my students, it’s not simply a decoration; it actually does have particular functions. So, let me enumerate the most common ones and then focus on the few that can cause undue confusion.
Stated simply, the function of a comma is to provide a brief pause when reading. Oh, and before I begin, let me provide the abbreviation for the term “for example.” It’s e.g. NOT ex.
1. with items in a series e.g. The coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. (Refer to rule #5.)
2. dates e.g. Today is January 12, 2014.
3. greeting in a friendly letter (Does anyone write these anymore?) e.g. Dear Laura,
4. introductory expressions e.g. Although he speaks well, his writing is atrocious.
5. separating independent clauses (aka simple sentences) WITH a coordinating conjunction. This rule takes a bit more explaining because it has TWO parts; omitting one part results in a run-on sentence. e.g. His email to the client was incomprehensible, so the company lost the account.
6. avoiding confusion The popular t-shirt illustrates the importance of the lowly comma. ”Commas save lives!” What is the difference in meaning between these two sentences? e.g. Let’s eat, Dan! Let’s eat Dan!
Other excellent illustrations for the importance of correct use of commas and other punctuation appear in the book Eats Shoots and Leaves. Indeed, the title without commas refers to a panda’s diet. With the insertion of commas, it shows the actions of a hunter. e.g. Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Take a look at another example from the same book. “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”
“A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
These express two quite different sentiments.
Take a few moments to think about the meaning you want to convey in any written communication. Doing so may avoid a great deal of undue confusion, not to mention embarrassment.