How Commas Pull Their Weight

In previous posts, we’ve discussed how proofreaders need to be aware of meaning when working on a document. And it’s not only word choice that affects meaning: punctuation can also change a sentence. In this post, then, we look at a few things you can do with commas.

Direct Address

A comma is necessary to show direct address (i.e. when a comment is directed at a particular person or group) because it makes the difference between these sentences:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

Let’s eat Grandma!

The first sentence here is direct address, with the speaker prompting their grandma to join them for food. The second is an invitation to eat a grandmother. However, neither should be confused with Let’s Eat Grandma, our favourite psychedelic alt-pop band.

The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, though not compulsory (your priority should be ensuring consistency), is sometimes very useful to prevent confusion. For instance, if a client says the following on the dedication page of their musical theatre dissertation…

I would like to thank my parents, Barbra Streisand, and God.

…you probably won’t want to edit out that last comma.The issue here is that, without the extra comma, the sentence could be introducing the parents as Barbra Streisand and God. Thus, you’d at least want to check whether your client has semi-divine parentage.

Not to imply that Barbra isn’t divine too.

Commas in Non-Restrictive Clauses

Commas are tricky little devils. When they’re not used, text can be difficult to understand. When they are used, however, it’s important that they’re used right.

For example, a comma is required is for a non-restrictive clause. Without one, the meaning can change. Look at the two sentences below:

The bearded ballerina, whose beard was plaited, looked strange.

The bearded ballerina whose beard was plaited looked strange.

In the first sentence, we are surprised to see a ballerina with a beard. The fact that it is plaited is secondary information, set apart with commas to create a non-restrictive clause. The second sentence, however, suggests a troupe of bearded ballerinas (or at least more than one), none of whom look strange apart from the one with the braid.

Look at these bald-chinned weirdos.

Commas After Introductory Phrases

A comma doesn’t always have to be used after an introductory phrase. But, occasionally, it can make all the difference. Look at these two sentences:

Most of the time, machines are reliable and get the job done.

Most of the time machines are reliable and get the job done.

The first sentence is a comment about the reliability of machines in general. The second is warning us that some time machines may be out of order, which is rather different. As such, the comma in this case is essential to the meaning!

No names mentioned.