The Mysterious Comma

Cartoon Stock by Jorodo ID jdon260


From Wikipedia: In the 3rd century BC, Aristophanes of Byzantium invented a system of single dots (distinctiones) that separated verses (colometry), and indicated the amount of breath needed to complete each fragment of text, when reading aloud. The different lengths were signified by a dot at the bottom, middle, or top of the line. For a short passage (a komma), a media distinctio dot was placed mid-level ( · ). This is the origin of the concept of a comma, although the name came to be used for the mark itself instead of the clause it separated. The mark used today is descended from a diagonal slash, or virgula suspensiva/ ), used from the 13th to 17th centuries to represent a pause. The modern comma was first used by Aldus Manutius.


No doubt, these distinctiones were first used by speech writers to aid rulers wishing to make a good impression on their rulees. “Veni, vidi, vici.” — Julius Caesar [Note: In a future Post, I’ll be writing about manipulating the reader. To demonstrate, I am about to make you look up the meaning of those words by stating: If you like erotica, you might have a little fun by switching their order.]

Commas are no longer used as indications of when or when not to take a breath when reading; they are used to set off elements of a sentence. Well, that depends. With communication, everything depends, doesn’t it?

If we are, indeed, writing a speech (or doing a reading from one of our works), then we may put in all the commas — the take-a-breath-here indicators — our little hearts desire.

But for written works, commas should be where grammatically required, not where dramatically required.

Now I could rhyme off a litany of grammar terms, or I could provide some examples.

Commas are little hooks that can lift a phrase/adverb/expression/clause out of a sentence and move it somewhere else; or they can insert a phrase into a sentence. We need one on each end of these phrases/adverbs/expressions/clauses. Picture the cables on a window-cleaner’s platform. Take one away … Kaboom!

If a phrase/adverb/expression/clause starts a sentence, the other comma is implied as in:

, Arriving home from work, Bill was hungry.

, Neverthess, he didn’t want to cook anything.

, Dammit, I thought there would be something to eat.

Whatever is between two commas can be removed without damaging the sentence. Reminder: A sentence has a subject, a verb, and [usually] an object. Example: Bill ate his soup. Subject: Bill; verb: ate; object: soup.

A sentence doesn’t have to have an object, as in: Bill was hungry. Some verbs don’t require an object because they are … just that way. [“An action verb with a direct object is transitive while an action verb with no direct object is intransitive. Some verbs, such as arrive, go, lie, sneeze, sit, and die, are always intransitive; it is impossible for a direct object to follow.”]

Bill ate his soup.

My brother, Bill, ate his soup.

I could have written “My brother Bill ate his soup”, but I have only one brother. Leaving the commas out in a case like this would imply that, perhaps, my brother Tom did not eat any soup. Spot the difference between “my brother, Bill” and “my brother Bill? The lowly little comma wields great power in the right hands, doesn’t it?

In the sentence above, I am going to remove “, Bill,” and this will give me:

My brother, Bill, ate his soup.

= My brother ate his soup. A complete sentence.

In my editing travels, I often see the comma appear only after the inserted name.

Let’s remove the [erroneous] comma’d section from the following sentence.

, My brother Bill, ate his soup.

= Ate his soup. This is not a complete sentence.

Let’s remove the implied comma’d section from this one:

“My wife Jeanne, my brother Bill, and the whole family went camping.”

Oh, wait a minute. Looks like this guy has more than one wife and more than one brother … Hey! Come on. That’s what is says right now. Fix by adding commas:

“My wife, Jeanne, my brother, Bill, and the whole family went camping.”

No matter how cluttery it appears, the commas are needed to communicate the truth. If we are uncomfortable with all those commas in there, we can reword the sentence to avoid it.

“I asked my wife and my brother if they wanted to go camping. They said yes, so Jeanne, Bill and the whole family came to Bon Echo Park with me.”

Note: I suggest we don’t write: “I asked my wife and brother if they wanted to go camping.” Best to write “my wife and my brother”.

Commas for Which & That?

When do we use commas with these critters?

  • The lawnmower is broken. It is in the back yard.
  • The lawnmower, which is broken, is in the back yard.

What if there is a second lawnmower which is not broken? It is in the front yard.

  • The lawnmower that is broken is in the back yard. (The one that is not broken is in the front yard.)

Commas for Who & Where?

  • John lives in the park. In the park, there is a fountain.
  • In the park where John lives, there is a fountain. (In that specific park, no other.)

If we didn’t know that John lives in a park, then:

  • In the park, where John lives, there is a fountain.
  • John, who lives in the park [or in a park — see the difference between “the” and “a” here?], is my nephew.
  • My nephew is John who lives in the park.

We could also write: My nephew is John, who lives in the park. There is a subtle difference between “John who lives in the park” and “John, who lives in the park.” Can you feel it?

Rather than regurgitate all uses of the comma, I’ll supply a link: You may trust what is written there.


Next post: Talkin’ Dirty — The Joy of Subtext


Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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