Questions on Commas

Question: The more I write dates including commas, the more confused I get! Where are they needed?

Answer: Commas are needed in dates only when the dates are in American format (month, day, year), only when all three of these elements are expressed, and only to set off the year. The complicating factor, however, is that when you embed dates in sentences, they are sometimes adjacent to junctures where commas are needed for other reasons. Letís look at your examples.

Example 1: "Awarded tenure June 1990 after one year of employment." Should it be June,1990, or June 1990, or no commas at all?

Answer: No comma after June, since no day is expressed. There is a comma after 1990, but not because itís a date. That comma is there because the phrase "after one year of employment" is not restrictive. It doesnít tell which June 1990; it gives extra information about that June 1990. Nonessential phrases are set off in commas.

Example 2: "In June 1996 I obtained a new . . ."

Answer: No comma is necessary. Though the phrase "In June 1996" is adverbial and lifted in front of the subject, modern style is sparse on commas and omits them after short adverbials where there is no possibility of misunderstanding.< /P>

Example 3: "July, 1992. Four-day trip to . . ." (Is there a comma after July?)

Answer: No comma after July because the day is not expressed.

Example 4: "Language Institute, July 1990, in Spanish at UNC-G."

Answer: Commas are required around July 1990 because it is a nonessential clause. I do hope that items 3 and 4 are not from the same list, however. If they are on the same list, they need to be in a parallel format.

Example 5: "The conference on April 16, 1998, will be held in Charlotte."

Answer: This is punctuated correctly. Commas set off the year because the day is expressed and the date is in American format.

Final Comment: Note that in European format (16 April 1998), no commas are required to set off the year. The Chicago Manual of Style now recommends European format for dates for exactly this reason. But this reason doesnít seem good enough. In my view, punctuation is a tool to foster communication. When we start altering our communication style so that we can simplify the tool thatís supposed to be working in its service, somethingís terribly amiss.

For academic work, I recommend taking a mixed stand: Use European format for bibliographies and notes, but stick with American format for run of text.

Question: Could you give me an example of a comma splice as well as ideas on correcting these monsters?

Answer: Let's start with a definition. A comma splice is a variety of run-on sentence. It occurs when two independent clauses are linked only with a comma.

The definition suggests the cure: Make sure that you link independent clauses with more than a comma.

Here's an example:

We hate comma splices, we hate split infinitives more.

One fix is to up the ante on the punctuation mark. The usual choice is a semicolon, but it has its drawbacks. For the most part, it is little used in casual prose, and it doesn't work on sentences that lack a Ciceronian balance. Nevertheless, the semic olon cure yields:

We hate comma splices; we hate split infinitives more.

A better solution is to bolster the comma with a conjunction--preferably one that will help the reader understand the relationship between the clauses. Here are some possibilities.

We hate comma splices, and we hate split infinitives more.
We hate comma splices, but we hate split infinitives more.
Although we hate comma splices, we hate split infinitives more.

If the subjects of the clauses are identical (as they are in this example), you can sometimes collapse the clauses into a single sentence with a compound predicate. I chose this example because this ruse fails so spectacularly in this case. Look at thi s:

We hate comma splices and split infinitives.

This, of course, is ambiguous. The "split" might be an adjective or verb:

We hate comma splices, and we hate split infinitives more.
We hate comma splices, we split infinitives.

"We hate comma splices and split infinitives" is an example of a rhetorical device called a "zeugma" (yoking), in which a single word works ambiguously to do double duty. Here's another example of a zeugma:

She lost her car keys and her marbles.

But you were asking about comma splices, not zeugmas. I can't say that I understand why English teachers get so exercised about exorcising comma splices. In my view, they're more amateurish than monstrous, and as I have demonstrated, pat solutions to them can actually interfere with communication.

And so we might conclude that comma splicers are more to be pitied than censured. Or maybe that comma splicers are more to be censored than censured.

Question: Is it wrong to put a comma before so far in the following sentence?

These lesions were only seen in some patients, so far.

Answer: This is not so much a matter of "right or wrong" as it is a matter of "clear or unclear." The comma before so far gives the phrase the character of a qualifying afterthought and makes you sound very unsure of yourself. Most native English speakers would word the sentence this way:

So far these lesions have been seen only in some patients.

The changes are these: 1. So far is moved out of the position of emphasis (the end of an English sentence) so that it doesn't undercut the main clause. 2. The form of the verb is changed from the simple past tense to the perfect to show ongoing action and match with the so far. 3. The adverb only is moved next to the prepositional phrase ("in some patients") it modifies.

Question (From a community college instructor): I have a grammar question about comma usage. Which of the following is correct?

Record and file results when received in lab, if appropriate.
Record and file results when received in lab if appropriate.

What about:

Identify microorganisms and perform antimicrobial susceptibility tests where applicable.

Is it okay to omit the comma? Is there a reason to have a comma? If appropriate and where applicable wouldnít quality as nonessential elements, would they?

Answer: These two examples are not as similar as they appear on the surface. The qualifier if appropriate in the first sentence ("Record and file results when received in lab, if appropriate.") is adverbial, modifying the imperative verbs record and file. It is set off in commas because it is placed so far away from the words it modifies. We might spin out the phrase to read if recording and filing is appropriate.

The qualifier where applicable in the second sentence ("Identify microorganisms and perform antimicrobial susceptibility tests where applicable.") relates only to the second clause, so it is much closer to the element it modifies. Furthermore, the applicability it talks about is the applicability of the tests, not the applicability of the performance. We might spin out the phrase to read where such tests are applicable.

In general, such qualifiers are, in fact, "nonessential," and are set off in commas unless (as in the second case) there is a reason to relate the phrase to only part of a sentence. Your confusion may be because you are applying common-meaning standards to the term of art nonessential. Nonessential does not mean "does not contain any essential information." It means "does not contain information that restricts the meaning of the concept modified in su ch a way that without it, the reader wonít be able to tell which concept weíre talking about."

In short, I recommend setting off the first phrase with a comma and running the second phrase into the sentence without a comma.

Question: In the following phrase, is a comma necessary (or desireable) after the word Doe? "Letter from John Smith to Jane Doe, dated May 14, 1997."

Answer: I recommend the comma. The only context where it would be unnecessary is if there are two letters from John Smith to Jane Doe and the "dated" phrase qualifies as a restrictive clause.

And even if this condition holds, I would opt for consistency rather than correct punctuation of an anomalous restrictive clause in the kind of list you are describing.

Additional question: By the way, have I correctly placed the quotation marks in my question? It seems to me that the question mark should be outside the quotation mark, but everyone tells me I'm wrong.

Answer: You will be gratified to hear that everyone else is wrong, and you are right. Although periods and commas reliably fall inside a concluding quotation mark in American style, question marks, semicolons, and colons fall within the quotation mark only when they are part of the quoted material. In your sentence, the question mark belongs to the "is a comma necessary" part of the sentence. It falls outside the quotation mark.

I am grateful to you for adding the extra question. It would have just about killed me to refrain from commenting on the mistaken placement of the question mark. I would have managed though. What's a Grammar Hotline without a healthy shot of noblesse oblige?

Followup question: As part of your earlier reply you wrote, "Although periods and commas reliably fall inside a concluding quotation mark in American style, question marks, semicolons, and colons fall within the quotation mark only when they are part of the quoted material."

I saw a license plate that read, "B BRIEF." I understand your reply to say that the period should go inside the quotation mark. Likewise, if a photograph of that license plate were attached to my brief as Exhibit "A," the preceding comma should be plac ed inside the quotation mark. Did I write that right?

Answer: You have the American rule right, but I must say that I found your quoting of my reply a bit ironic when juxtaposed to the "B BRIEF" advice.

And furthermore, I'm not done yet. Only American publications observe this rule (but they are absolutely regular about it). British publications parse out the sentence and place periods and commas according to the rule I gave you for question marks, semicolons, and colons.

If you'd like to read justifications for the differing styles, you might look up the Frequently Asked Questions link from my Online Writing Page (URL below). This link is provided by contributors to a copyediting listserve. There's a whole section devoted to this question.

Additional followup request: Please do not spare me any of your wisdom for the sake of my feelings. If anything I write contains incorrect punctuation, or other errors, please let me know.

Answer: Okay--you wrung it out of me. You misspelled desirable. Or maybe it was desirability. I can't remember. But I do remember an "e" between the "r" and the "able."

Correcting spelling in an e-mail environment is, however, a very risky business. I don't have a spell checker myself. This single fact converts the Grammar Hotline business from dead-dull drudgery to high-risk daredevilry.

If the university should ever be so foolish to upgrade my system to include a spell checker I would probably quit on the spot.

Question: (From a monument cutter): On a tombstone, should there be a comma before the word "and" in the phrase "Cherished wife, beloved mother, and dear grandmother"?

Answer: The comma under discussion is sometimes called a "serial comma" or "the Harvard comma." Your uncertainty about its use is understandable, since it is sometimes recommended, and sometimes not recommended, depending on the style manual.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the style manual preferred for book and magazine publishing, recommends the comma. Advocates of the serial comma frequently note that a comma is a separator, and it is illogical to require the word and, which is a conjunction (a joiner), to do the job of a separator.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the style manual preferred for newspaper publishing, omits the comma. This is part and parcel of a newspaper's pared-down style: When in doubt, leave it out.

The question before us is this: Is a tombstone more like a newspaper or a book?

There's a lot to be said for its resemblance to a newspaper. It answers the first four "W's" of responsible reporting, who, what, when, and where. It falls down on the Why? of death, but then, what does not?

On the other hand, a tombstone has a lot more permanence than a daily newspaper, and the monument worker certainly has the leisure to put the comma in--and a financial incentive, since he charges by the character.

Oh heck. You only die once. I'm going to recommend the serial comma on tombstones--as a final, grand, clarifying gesture to the dearly departed.

I might have gone the other way if the example at hand had been "scoundrel, thief and all-around bad guy."

Question: What's the latest rule for whether to place a comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items? E.g., should there be a comma before the and in "sex, lies and videotape"? How about if there is a conjunction within one of the items of the series, e.g., "sex, drugs and rock and roll"? I know that the former rule was not to put a comma before the conjunction, but I understand that the accepted approach now is to put it in.

Answer: What you are noticing is not a change in accepted practice in general, but rather a difference in the way this general style rule is handled, and has always been handled, in different kinds of publications. In short, newspaper style is to leave it out. Book style is to put it in. We can rationalize the difference in the rules by thinking about the different audiences and styles of different kinds of publications.

Such rules are subject to practical constraints. The Associated Press Stylebook, for example, which usually recommends omitting the serial comma, reverses this rule if the omission would lead to confusion. The second of your examples is of this type. The AP Stylebook recommends: "Put a comma in a series if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction." Its example is: "I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast." This rule would genera te: "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." This configuration is the same as it would be in book style.

Question (From an N.C. State staff member): I always thought, and the Chicago Manual of Style seems to support, that items in a list are separated by commas, even the last item before the and, such as: "She likes apples, oranges, and plums." A faculty members tells me that "this was changed last year and no comma is needed before the and. True?

Answer: Changed by whom? Never trust a faculty member--or anybody else for that matter--who uses the passive voice while espousing a grammar rule.

There are, as you note, two different punctuation conventions for the final comma in a series. Book and academic style (Chicago Manual) mandates the comma. Newspaper style (AP Stylebook) omits it. The university has always recommended aca demic style for official university publications, and I havenít heard of any proposed change. Furthermore, it is clear to me that publications directed to an academic audience are best punctuated in academic style. I can imagine a sensible directive from the university publications office telling people preparing press releases to use newspaper style, but I havenít seen such a directive.

Oh well, letís not panic. So far weíre working on hearsay. The Grammar Hotlineís recommendation is that you continue using academic style--particularly if you are preparing documents for an internal academic audience.

Question (from two English teachers): Would you add a comma below after March 2? One of us would, one wouldn't, and both of us are English teachers (64 years of collective teaching experience, 28 years of marriage). The workshop will be held on March 2, beginning at 5:00 p.m. -or- The workshop will be held on March 2 beginning at 5:00 p.m.

One of us thinks, "Use a comma. It's a nonrestrictive participial phrase." The other says, "I feel a comma isn't necessary. If you loved me, you wouldn't put a comma there. You've always been an overpunctuator."

Nationally, one Grammar Hotline responded to an earlier e-mail with a "Yes"; another said "No." Locally, our colleagues are divided. At home, our sixteen-year-old son says we're weird and don't have enough outside interests.

We are going to the Big Guns--you on the Hotlines! We are asking you to render judgment. Any rationale you provide will be greatly appreciated, but a simple "Keep it" or "Drop it" will be enough. (We will let you know the vote.)

Answer: Before we punctuate this sentence, we must explore the broad implications of the underlying theory that punctuation compatibility is the acid test of true love. Just as squabbling over trifles is a textbook symptom of deeper "issues" in a relationship, the problem with this sentence isn't punctuation at all; it is much more fundamental: The action verb lacks action.

You can find action in the sentence; it has decamped to the participle "beginning." If you restore this action to the main verb, thus attacking the root problem, the punctuation issue will take care of itself. Thus:

The workshop will begin on March 2 at 5:00 p.m.

There, now. Wasn't that healing?

Question: (From a computer consultant in Boston): Where does the Grammar Hotline stand on the comma after therefore in a sentence like "Therefore the UAT test data must be available at the start of SIT"?

Answer: The comma after therefore provides a shaky footing since it is sometimes needed to clarify the relationship between sentences. In the example you give, however, there is little possibility of misunderstanding. In such a case, I re commend adherence to the Chicago Manual of Style 5.69: "When [transitional adverbs] are used in such a way that there is no real break in continuity and no call for any pause in reading, commas should be omitted."

Chicago gives four examples: (1) The storehouse was indeed empty; (2) I therefore urge you all to remain loyal; (3) Wilcox was perhaps a bit too hasty in his judgment; (4) Palmerson was in fact the chairman of the committee.

The only reason to place a comma after therefore in your sentence would be if the passage leading up to the conclusion were so obtuse that you need the comma to mean, "Look. I know I've been boring you out of your mind and you've drifted off, bu t I really do know what I'm talking about. Let me try again. Here's what I meant to say. Please forgive me for that other stuff." The comma is tantamount to a drumroll.

This, however, is not much of an argument for the comma. If you've written yourself into this kind of quagmire, the best editorial solution is to delete the introductory material. If you're brave enough to do that, you won't have any trouble deleting the comma.

Question (From the N.C. State administrative staff): The issue is that I always (or at least almost always) insist on using a comma before the and that precedes the last item in a series, while another person in the office refuses to. Last week she had a bulleted list thus:

that and
the other thing

I did prevail upon her to add a comma in this case. But that is the only one I've won.

Her argument is, simply, that no comma is now "standard" usage. I say PHOOOEY, standard doesn't make it (a) right or (b) understandable.

Two examples:

Example 1: "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" does not mean the same thing as "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep" In the first instance, dark and deep modify lovely; in the second, three adjectives modify the noun. So I would argue that sometimes the final comma is absolutely necessary to say what one means to say. (Of course, we don't write much poetry in this office.)

Example 2: I would certainly advocate for "We raise funds for need- and merit-based scholarships, special projects such as class gifts, and the University's twelve schools and colleges." Without the final comma, it would read "...special projects such as class gifts and the University's twelve schools. " True, when you got to the end of the sentence you'd discover your mistake and could go back through and decipher the list, but what a bother!

Answer: Although punctuation rules differ by style manual, this does not mean that the rules are whimsical. Style manuals are written to suit the expectations for style of the targeted reader. As a proponent of the serial comma, you advocate the kind of style that usually appears in books and journals. As a critic of the comma, your colleague advocates the kind of style that usually appears in newspapers. As you know, N.C. State makes periodic pronouncements on style rules for its publications.

Unless something has changed recently, N.C. State is on your side; it recommends that official publications follow The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition, which is the bible for book publishing and for academic publishing in general. The rationale is that a literate bunch like a university community, who are required to write for publication in academic style, will be most comfortable if official publications are consistent with the style they customarily use in their own writing. To some extent, of course, this argument is specious. University faculty are voracious and diverse readers, and most manage to get through their daily newspapers without being distracted by the use of the serial comma, the closing up of the space between initials in names, and the lack of an extra "s" after the apostrophe in a possessive of a proper name ending in "s."

I was trained as a university-press editor. Like you, I like the serial comma. But if I am tracing your question correctly, you work in an office serving the university administration. I urge you to learn both styles. Though book style will be appropriate for larger publications, Associated Press style is the correct choice for press releases or for any publication where you are trying to match a newspaper standard.

Finally, even the AP Stylebook advocates the use of a serial comma when it is needed for clarity. Your examples fit this description, and the AP Stylebook gives others, including:

I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

The latter of these examples provides a clue as to why book style recommends the serial comma: Books customarily allow more complicated syntactic structures than do newspapers.

Both style manuals cited are readily available at any full-service book store--including the one in the Student Union.

Question (From an N.C. State undergraduate) Do I need a comma between career and and in the following sentence?

The skills that I have developed through my work and classroom experiences support my strong interest in a journalism career and make me confident that I will make a useful addition to your newsroom.

Obviously this is from my resume cover letter. Also, which is correct?

I will graduate in December 1997
I will graduate in December of 1997?

Answer: The short answer to your first question is that no comma is necessary in the middle of a compound predicate.

You ought, however, to listen to your instinct that a clarifying comma might be necessary and wonder how the subject of this sentence got so complicated. Three things make you want to pursue this career: work at the Technician, classroom experiences, interest in the field. Look at the way you have embedded them. If you simplify the thought, you will simplify the syntax. The punctuation will follow along.

The answer to your second question is that December 1997 is conventional. Are you graduating? Congratulations.

Question (From the Internet): I'd like to know whether a comma is used to introduce a direct quotation when the surrounding sentence begins with "if":

If Jane says, "I was about to call you," don't believe her.
If Jane says "I was about to call you," don't believe her.

Answer: I recommend the second alternative (no comma), but my recommendation is based not on the fact that quotation is imbedded in a conditional "if" clause, but rather that it serves as an integral element in any clause at all.

In this example, "I was about to call you" is the direct object of the subordinate clause "If Jane (the subject) says (the verb)." It would be confusing to use a comma to separate the direct object from the rest of its clause--particularly since we're using a comma to separate the conditional from the main clause of the sentence--but not for that reason alone.

All of this relates to the way we integrate any quotation into a sentence. The more closely integrated the clause, the less likely we are to use separating punctuation. To some extent, we make these decisions based on whether the syntactic elements in question are essential to the meaning. In the example you give, the quotation is essential. Don't set it off in commas.

Question (From the Internet): I'm often worried about my placement of commas. Could you give a general rule for them? The following two lines make up a footnote to a table. It is exactly as requested by the client for whom we are performing some work. The question I have here is regarding the commas in the second sentence. It seems like you could surround the 1995 and 1996 with commas, but to leave them as-is looks awkward.

The Snapshot Program was a non-controlled, observational study to document current practices regarding anti-emetic treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The study was conducted at 12 sites nationwide from June, 1995 to June, 1996 using oncology supportive care software under development in CMD.

Answer: The most elegant solution is to apply newspaper-editing conventions. According to the AP Stylebook:

When a phrase lists only a month and a year, do not separate the year with commas. When a phrase refers to a month, day and year, set off the year with commas.

This rule encourages you to eliminate the commas after the months in the second sentence.

Of course, this solution works to eliminate commas only in this context. Many style manuals come up with rules to eliminate commas around dates in all contexts. The most common way of doing this is to recommend European date order (day, month, year). T his, of course, puts the month right beside the year, which is what you're dealing with in your footnote.

By the way, you need a comma after 1996. It sets off the nonessential participial phrase from the rest of the sentence. You also need some work on hyphens. Both noncontrolled and antiemetic are in the dictionary without hyphens. "Oncology supportive care software" is an almost-undecipherable noun phrase. I'll make a reasonable assumption that the software supports oncological care. Here's how the footnote should read:

The Snapshot Program was a noncontrolled, observational study to document current practices regarding antiemetic treatment for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. The study was conducted at 12 sites nationwide from June 1995 to June 1996, using oncology-care support software under development in CMD.

Question (From the Internet): In writing a date is it correct to place a comma following the year? For example, should a date be punctuated "On April 3, 1997 I made an inquiry" or "On April 3, 1997, I made an inquiry"? I feel certain I was taught that the comma should be used, but more and more I am seeing it omitted.

Answer: This is the second report of alarming comma promiscuity that I have received in the last two days. Of course you are correct. If you are using a traditional date format (month, day, year--April 3, 1997, ), you must set the year off in commas.

On the other hand, I can't say that I am particularly surprised by your report. Writers have been trying to wiggle out of this comma requirement for years. The comma is already gone in a format without a day (April 1997--not April, 1997, ), and is unnecessary in European date format (day, month, year--3 April 1997).

Question (From a secretary): I write various business letters for my company. Can you give me the rules regarding the placement of commas? We seem to be of different opinions here in the office. I seem to remember one in particular from high school regarding phrases and clauses, but I need some clarification.

Answer: There are all kinds of commas and all kinds of rules for their use. The Online Writing Lab has links to a couple of different sources that may help you.

The OWL's link to William Strunk's The Elements of Style gives you easy access to a classic, general style manual. This will give you some rules, but will not give you a context for applying them.

The Grammar Hotline, on the other hand, is set up to explain the rules in a context you supply. Check the Question of the Month Archives under Questions on Commas for the way I've answered some other comma queries.

For now, let me say that there are commas that help a reader's understanding, commas that hinder a reader's understanding, and commas that could go either way. Modern stylebooks favor a sparse punctuation style, mandating only those commas that streamline communication. Thus, a general principle might be: When in doubt, leave it out.

It is likely that the rule you remember about phrases and clauses is a rule that requires you to determine the importance of a phrase or clause to the concept it modifies so that you can decide how to punctuate it. In traditional grammar books, this is usually called the rule on restrictive or descriptive phrases or clauses. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual calls it a rule on essential or nonessential phrases or clauses.

The AP rule is approximately this:

A phrase or clause is essential (restrictive) if it is critical to a reader's understanding of what the author had in mind. It is not set off in commas. If it begins with a relative pronoun, that pronoun is that.
A phrase or clause is nonessential (descriptive) if it simply provides more information about something. Although the information may be helpful to the reader's comprehension, the reader would not be mislead if the information were not there. It is set off in commas. If it begins with a relative pronoun, that pronoun is which.

Here are some examples:

The hurricane that hit Raleigh last September did millions of dollars of damage. (Essential clause tells exactly which hurricane. No commas. Relative pronoun is "that.")
Hurricanes, which can be devastatingly destructive, are one of the wonders of nature. (Nonessential clause gives information but does not restrict to a specific hurricane. Commas. Relative pronoun is "which.")

Sometimes punctuation and choice of relative pronoun determines meaning. Consider these commands:

Please bring me the dictionary that is on the desk. (There are many dictionaries in the room. I'm directing you to the exact one I want.)
Please bring me the dictionary, which is on the desk. (There is only one dictionary in the room, but I want to save you some time by pointing you in the right direction.)

The Grammar Hotline is most effective when users send specific sentences that are causing them trouble. There is no learning tool as effective as a full analysis of a problem that the user has already considered from many different angles.

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