Clarity (3)


This week I would like to address my very often underestimated little friend, the comma. I confess to being somewhat of a pedant when it comes to its usage. Often ignored and underrated, incorrect comma usage can change the meaning of sentences and its omission render a sentence unintelligible. Sticklers like myself go so far as to say that our system of punctuation is endangered – what with ‘textese’ (SMS language) and other internet-based communication. So allow me to demonstrate what a wonderful and necessary thing the comma is. I know, it’s sad – I really don’t have a life.

Before I enlighten you of the rules, look how commas can change the meaning of sentences:

  • The judge said the convict was a fool. (meaning:) The convict is the fool.
  • The judge, said the convict, was a fool. (meaning:)The judge is the fool.
  • The staff who were successful received a bonus. (meaning:) Only members of staff who were successful received a bonus
  • The staff, who were successful, received a bonus. (meaning:) All staff received a bonus.

The rules surrounding comma usage in English differ from those in Dutch. Moreover, I frequently encounter a form of ‘comma phobia’ during the writing workshops I provide; i.e. the poor little comma is completely overlooked. Look at this extract, not a comma in sight!

“The difference between the large company rules and the mitigated large company rules is that the mitigated large company rules the members of the company’s management board are appointed by the general meeting rather than by the members of the supervisory board”.

Now that I have hopefully demonstrated their importance, here are some of the rules:

1. Commas are used to separate an introductory word or phrase from the main subject of the sentence e.g.

  • Time phrase: In 2012, we launched our new software.
  • Introductory phrase: In response to your telephone call, I have pleasure in enclosing the revised contract.

2. Commas are used after connectors (e.g. furthermore, however etc.) or adverbs of opinion (e.g. actually, frankly etc.) placed at the beginning of a sentence e.g.

  • Moreover, we would like to draw your attention to the final paragraph of our client’s letter.
  • Very importantly, we would like to draw your attention to clause four of the contract.

3. Commas are used to separate connectors from the surrounding text e.g.

  • We have, however, some queries related to clause 4.
  • The supplier must, therefore, give four weeks’ notice of any price changes.

4. Commas are used before and after a non-defining relative clause e.g.

  • The contract, which has also been passed to my colleague in Frankfurt, does not   include the information we sent you last week.
  • He has agreed to speak to the manager, who is coming here next Monday, regarding the Patent issue.

5. Commas are NOT used:

  • After a defining relative clause e.g. – This is an issue which will require further attention. – A barrister is a lawyer in England or Wales who is allowed to speak in the higher law courts.
  • Before ‘and’ (NB: There is something known as the ‘Oxford Comma’ which is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of al list e.g. We sell books, videos, and magazines. The Oxford Comma is also a part of pop music… click here). 
  • After a ‘reporting’ verb (e.g. say, tell, inform, think, confirm etc.)e.g. He has confirmed that the Plaintiff will accept the amount offered in settlement
  • (as mentioned in Courtesy 1): After salutations and closes in correspondence e.g. Dear Mr Jones and Yours sincerely/Best regards. This is no longer necessary in British English.

Although I have only scratched the surface regarding comma usage, the above are the most important rules. I hope after reading this you pay a little more attention to possibly one of the most important, but underrated elements of punctuation.

Happy writing.