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Set 4 - Lesson 17 ( Go to the Answer Key )


Lesson 17, Punctuation - Commas, the Sign for a Slight Pause

As was mentioned in earlier lessons, punctuation marks on paper (or computer screen) are primarily signals indicating how a passage would be spoken aloud - how the voice pitch would rise or fall, when one thought or idea ends and another begins, the amount of emotional content in a sentence.  This lesson will examine the comma, those dainty little curved lines that tell a reader  one should pause slightly or take a quick breath at that point.  A writer of English needs to imagine how his words would be spoken aloud by an actor or a radio announcer, and where the imaginary speaker would pause or hesitate within a sentence, the writer should place a comma.  If you follow this simple procedure, you will use commas correctly most of the time.  There are in addition many situations not so easily detected where a comma should be used.  That is where English Punctuation Rules come in, to tell one specifically where and why to use commas. 

* To enclose Appositives.  An appositive is a word or group of words that explain or rename something that came just before.        

Mr. Smith, the lawyer, stood up. The delivery person, Ted Harris, was lost.  The newspaper article talked about disenfranchisement, losing the right to vote. 

* Separating cities from states and states from the rest of the sentence.    

I went to college in Columbus, Ohio. My son moved to Tampa, Florida, several years ago. Chicago, Illinois, is my least favorite city.

* To separate Independent Clauses in compound sentences.  Independent clauses could actually be complete sentences on their own, but because the topics they speak of are closely related, they are joined together by a Comma and usually a Conjunction (and, or, but, thus, although, etc.).   

 "I would have mown the grass today, but my back was killing me." "We can go to the movies, or we can stay home.  You decide."

* To separate the day of the month from the year.      (Note: It used to be required to put a comma after the year as well, but the current trend has moved away from that unless the construction of the sentence would require a comma, as in  'On June 30, 1989, my car was stolen.' because 'On June 30, 1989' is an introductory adverbial prepositional phrase which, by another rule, would require a comma after it.)

I graduated May 16, 1984. September fifth, 1976 was the date I was hired.  'On June 30, 1989, my car was stolen.' 

* Use a comma to show that one or more easily understood words have been omitted (an Ellipsis).

'The Chicago Bears scored 35 points in the game; the New York Giants, 31.' 

In this case, the words 'scored __ points in the game' were omitted from the second half of the sentence, but anyone reading it would know what was meant.  The comma is used to stand for the missing words.

* To set off Non-essential Phrases and Clauses from the rest of the sentence. Non-essential phrases and clauses are groups of words that may provide additional information to the reader but are not necessary to the primary meaning of the sentence.      (This topic will be covered more thoroughly in another lesson.)

"The sailor who stood on the deck watched the plane crash."  The clause 'who stood on the deck' is necessary to the meaning of the sentence.  It tells us that it was not the sailor in the engine room or the sailor in the lifeboat who saw the crash, but specifically the one on the deck. 
"The sailor, shielding his eyes from the glare, saw the plane crash."   In this sentence, the phrase 'shielding his eyes from the glare', is not essential to the main meaning of the sentence.  It could be left out without changing the original meaning.  Therefore, it must be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.

* Use a comma to separate Introductory Words from the rest of the sentence.    People use these Introductory Words for various reasons: to open a gap in the conversation so they can say what they really wanted to say, to give them an extra few seconds to get their thoughts in order about what they want to say, to lend a note of seriousness or believability to to the words they intend to say. 

Well, I thought it was time to go. Actually, I didn't know the book belonged to you. You know, I thought it was that one all the time. Honestly, that's what happened.

* Use a comma between a name and a following tag or title.                    

Lever Brothers, Ltd.   Earthlink, Inc.  Michael Malone, Sr. Joseph Kennedy, III     R.J. Garvey, Esq.

* Use commas when writing large numbers, after every third number counting from right to left.   (BUT NOT in street numbers, addresses, post office boxes, telephone numbers.)

$64,000 5,280 feet   93,000,000 miles

* Use commas to set off Parenthetical Phrases. 

 Parenthetical phrases are similar to Introductory Words - extra comments thrown into a sentence.  Sometimes they can alter the meaning of a sentence a little, but the sentence can survive without them.  Examples:  I believe ....for example ..... however ..... furthermore ...... thus ... without doubt any case ..... On the other hand .... in my opinion ..... I swear.  Be careful, however, of situations when words like these are an essential part of the sentence and thus do not require a comma.  "Do you have faith in my opinion about the new product?"  "He put his glove on the other hand."   "I believe in the United States of America."

* Use commas to set off Participial Phrases. 

What is a Participial Phrase?  It is an -ing or -ed form of a verb, with modifiers, that acts as an adjective in a sentence.      Note in each of these sentences that if we left out the Participial Phrase, the basic sentence would remain the same.  The participial phrases just give us a little more information, in these cases, about the subjects of the sentences.

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"The hunter, having forgotten his ammunition, decided not to shoot the deer."  "The teacher, losing her train of thought, gave us yesterday's assignment."

* Use commas to set off Direct Quotations. 

When writing English, any time you use the exact words someone has spoken, those words must be surrounded by Quotation marks.  In addition, those quotations have to be separated from the rest of the sentence by commas.   Note the location of the commas and the quotation marks.  When these two forms of punctuation are side-by-side in a direct quotation, the comma ALWAYS comes before the quotation marks.

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"I know,"  said the teacher, "that someone helped you with your homework."  "The meter is running," said the impatient taxi driver. The frantic woman said, "I'll be there soon." 

* Using commas in a Series.  Separate words and phrases in a series by commas.    Note: The last comma, the one before the 'and', is optional, but many book publishers continue to use it.

"Riding a bicycle, playing tennis, reading mysteries, and playing cards are my favorite activities."  "To get ready for our camping trip, we had to pack sleeping bags, food, blankets, water, and a tent."

* Use commas after the Salutation and the Closing in friendly letters.   

Dear Miss Wentworth, Mother, My Dearest Steven,  Dear Bob,  Yours truly, Sincerely yours,  With deep regret, With boundless love and appreciation,

That is a long list of rules.   Look carefully at the examples for each rule, however, and you will notice that when you read the sentences, there is a natural tendency to pause or hesitate at most of the spots where a comma has been placed. That is more evidence that written punctuation is largely a reflection of how we speak, or at least how we should speak.

Exercise A: Place commas where they belong in the following examples.

1. April 15 2000 was not a happy day for many people.

2. I drove through Dallas Texas many times.

3. The personnel manager told Dave he could earn $56000 per year if he worked hard.

4. Lions tigers and bears can be dangerous if you are not in Oz.

5. Jill wanted to follow the path up the hill but Jack insisted on taking a shortcut.

6. Harry was in fact the only person who could do the job.

7. Truly I cannot understand what went wrong.

8. The juggler feeling sweat roll into his eyes worried about catching the spinning plates.

9. "I'm glad I found you " Sarah told the tour guide  "because I have been wandering for hours."

10. J. F. Kennedy Jr. will never become president.

Exercise B:  Cross out the commas that do not belong.

1. When we go, to the store, we usually, buy too many, items we don't need.

2. January 1, February 14, March 17, and July 4, are the best days, of the whole year.

3. The United States, has a national debt, of about $3,500,000,000,000.00, so I don't worry about my little credit card debt.

4. The Johnson's vacation trip,  took them through Jackson, Mississippi, Mobile, Alabama, Hammond, Louisiana, and Beaumont, Texas, before they finally returned home, to Atlanta, Georgia.

5. "Well, I declare," said the surprised farmer, "I have never, seen such an ugly, undersized, dog as that!"

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Examination:  Put commas where they should be in the following letter.

Dear Bill

Honestly I don't understand why some people were getting so upset.  I mean it's not as if you robbed a bank or anything really serious like that.  I think most folks would understand with the pressure you are under all the time that you need to get your mind off those matters once in a while.   August 8 1999 was a bad day for you I remember because of the article that hit the newspapers in New York Raleigh North Carolina Chicago and Denver Colorado.  Even some of your strongest supporters knowing what they do about events have been very careful to keep their distance. 

On a brighter note there was an article written by J. R. Clooney Sr.  printed in a major magazine in which the young woman in question Lois Monoski denied all or at least most of the allegations being made.  That mysterious deposit of $12350 made to her bank account has caused some curiosity however.  Well that is all I have to say for now but I hope I have helped cheer you up.  Stick to your story.

Your secret friend


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