May 8:  Comma Day

On this day in 1884, a New York City newspaper featured a story on Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900).  The story, published in The Daily Graphic, is the source of one of the best-known quotations concerning the vagaries of English punctuation:

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.

The source of this frequently cited Wilde quotation is an anecdote recounted by the newspaper article: Once on a trip to an English country house, Wilde was annoyed by the uncultured pronouncements of a fellow guest, who loudly proclaimed that artistic pursuits were a waste of time.  As the two shared lunch, the Philistine guest asked Wilde what he had been up to all morning. Wilde replied saying, “I’ve been very busy all morning editing my book of poems.”

The fellow guest followed up asking, “So have you made much progress?”

Wilde responded, “Yes, I took out a comma.”

“Is that all you accomplished?” the guest inquired with disbelief and disgust.  

“No, not at all,” retorted Wilde, “After careful consideration, I put the comma back.”  (1)

As the anecdote and Wilde’s quotation shows, even great writers have struggled with the most common and most vexing of all punctuation marks:  the comma.

The problem is that commas are used in so many different situations that writers become overwhelmed.  One solution to this problem is to specify each of the most frequently used applications of the comma and to name each of these applications as a distinct type of comma.

Nine Types of Commas

Introductory Comma:  A comma that separates a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence from the sentence’s main clause:   

On a dark and stormy night, John sat in the library reading.

Coordinating (FANBOYS) Comma:  A comma that precedes a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses:

John sat in the library reading, but he should have been doing his math homework.

Serial Comma (Oxford or Harvard) Comma:  A comma that is used to separate items in a series (See March 21:  Serial Comma Day):

John bought some paper clips, pencils, and rubber bands.

Adjective Comma:  A comma that separates two (coordinating) adjectives that equally modify a noun

It was a dark, stormy night in Pittsburgh.

Appositive Comma:  Twin commas that set off an appositive phrase from the rest of a sentence.  Typically, the appositive phrase comes directly after the noun it modifies:

Mary, a junior in college, hopes to get a summer job.

Adjective Clause Comma:  Twin commas that set off a restrictive adjective clause from the rest of a sentence:

Mary, who is a junior in college, hopes to get a summer job.

Subordinating Comma:  A comma that follows a dependent (adverb) clause, separating an opening dependent clause from an independent clause.

After he spent three hours reading in the library, John went to math class.

Quotation Comma:  A comma that precedes a quotation when the speaker of the quotation is introduced:

My mother always said, “Make sure you wear a warm coat.”

Participial Comma:  A comma that separates a participial phrase (or absolute phrase) from the rest of a sentence.  

Embarrassed to be wearing his Batman pajamas, Bill refused to answer the knock at the door.

Today’s Challenge: Comma, Comma, Chameleon

How many different rules are there for using commas?  What are some examples of specific times that a comma should be used in writing? Read the explanations above of Nine Types of Commas.  Then, write nine original sentences of your own, using all nine different types.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  What’s the difference between a cat and comma?

One has its claws at the end of its paws, and one is a pause at the end of a clause. -An old joke