Friday, April 10, 2015

Think Commas Don't Matter? You Should Reconsider....

If you are one of the many, many people who think that commas don't matter anymore, consider this:

The words of the venerable Fourteenth Amendment, on the back of which so many of our rights are based, contain lots of commas--and, as you'll see below, every one them absolutely necessary.

"nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."

Do you see the final comma between "life, liberty, or property"? 

We should all be very grateful for the clarity that comma creates. Here's why: The third comma indicates that the phrase "without due process of law" applies to all three words: "life," "liberty," and "property." Without the comma, it would only refer to "property." 

Just imagine the litigation that would have gone over whether the state can take your "life" or your "liberty"  without due process. 

If only the framers of the Bill of Rights had used commas the way we do today, and the way the famers of the Fourteenth Amendment did, the Second Amendment might be a whole lot more clear. Alas, in those days, there were no rules for comma usage, and writers frequently strew them about their sentences. 

So, here again is my primer on comma usage within a sentence:
1. Use a comma to separate words in a series, like "life, liberty, or property" above. And do use the final one--despite what your high school teacher might have told you about it not being necessary. 

2. Use a comma before "and," "or," "but," or "nor," when they join two independent clauses. 
 I would have gone, but she went before me. 

3. Use a comma after an introductory phrase or clause: 
Alert to the problems involved, she was careful to put the commas in the right place.

4. Use a comma to separate two adjectives modifying the same noun independently:
The bright, motivated student wanted to know more about punctuation. 

Those are the basics. Follow these rules in your memos and reports, and you'll be guaranteed that promotion you were hoping for. Well, not necessarily, but you get the idea. Clear, concise, correct writing matters!