Discussing specific punctuation marks: The comma

Punctuation comprises signs deployed to mark off lexical items from one another, usually to show their grammatical relationship or to lay emphasis. Note that all of these marks are collectively called punctuation. So, while it is correct to talk about punctuation marks, it is wrong to say “punctuations.”

Punctuation marks help readers to achieve what pitch, pauses, hesitations and whatnot do for listeners. In the words of L. Gartside, “Punctuation marks are signposts for the reader, and since the multiplication of signposts can be more embarrassing than helpful, we must learn to be intelligent in our placing of them.”

It is, therefore, important to choose the right words and combine them carefully to avoid the ambiguities and confusions that could be created through the use of punctuation marks. I have discussed the functions of punctuation marks in one of my treatises.

However, it has been observed that many written works are characterised by the excessive or wrong use of punctuation marks. For this reason, this piece will discuss, more specifically, the comma and its functions.

The comma (,) is to a sentence what the brake is to a vehicle. Since no one speeds from one end to another, the brake is always inevitable when one drives, especially if it is a long distance. The comma, likewise, helps achieve intermittent breaks in sentences. I shall discuss four kinds of the comma in this article, namely: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and the bracketing commas.

The listing comma is used when three or more words or longer grammatical units have to be joined together. It is used to separate the item(s) before the last two:

I know you, your brother and your sister.

I speak Yoruba, I speak English, but I don’t know a word in Spanish.

Note that, sometimes, for stylistic purposes, a conjunction may be used throughout, instead of the comma:

I came, I saw and I conquered (acceptable).

I came and I saw and I conquered (acceptable).

Note that it is not a common practice to use the listing comma before the conjunction “and” or “or” in British English, but this is common in American English. That listing comma placed before the conjunction “or” or “and”, or after the penultimate item in a list, is otherwise called the Oxford comma.

Her known friends were Bisi, Kemi, and Dayo (common in American English).

Her known friends were Bisi, Kemi and Dayo (common in British English).

It should, nevertheless, be mentioned that the listing comma is important if it makes clear the meaning and association of items at the end of a sentence, as in:

The meals I enjoy are pizza, beans, and chicken and chips.

The comma after “beans” makes it easy to tell that “chicken and chips” makes a meal. The sentence will be clumsy if written as:

The meals I enjoy are pizza, beans and chicken and chips.

Next, the joining comma is used to join two independent clauses to form a sentence with the use of the coordinating conjunctions such as: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Example sentences are given below:

Lagos used to be the seat of the Federal Government, and it is still the commercial hub of the country.

There was so much to talk about, but we didn’t have much time.

I have bought a washing machine, so doing the laundry will be very easy.

The general reader should be in the know that using only the comma in the sentences above, without the conjunction, will result in a poorly punctuated sentence.

There was so much to talk about, we didn’t have much time (non-standard).

If any of the conjunctions listed above will not be used in such a sentence, then the comma must be replaced with a semicolon:

There was so much to talk about; we didn’t have much time.

Adverbs such as “however,” “therefore,” “hence,” “consequently,” “notwithstanding” and “nevertheless” cannot be used after the joining comma. The semicolon should be used before these adverbs instead of the comma.

I knew he would not come, notwithstanding, I sent him money (non-standard).

I knew he would not come; notwithstanding, I sent him money (standard).

The gapping comma is used to indicate missing words when the words have earlier been mentioned and can be deciphered from the first part of a sentence, as in:

Many Nigerians want to get power for their self-interest; others, for the genuine desire to serve.

Read also: Like grammar; Like real life

The comma after “others” represents the omission of “want to get power”, since it can be inferred from the first part. The gapping comma can be omitted if the sentence is clear without it:

Fela was known for his Afrobeat, Bob Marley for his Reggae, and Ayinla Omowura for his Apala.

The gapping comma could have been added after Bob Marley and Ayinla Omowura but was omitted since the sentence is easy to understand.

Last but not least, we have the bracketing commas which are otherwise called isolating commas. They are used to mark off interruptions that do not hinder the smooth flow of sentences, as in:

Akeelah and the Bee, released in 2006, used to be my favourite movie.

Our client, who works in the United States, has departed for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Douglas, sincerely speaking, is a diligent and honest member of staff.

You will, therefore, discover that if these interruptions are dispensed with, the sentences will remain intelligible thus:

Akeelah and the Bee used to be my favourite movie.

Our client has departed for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Douglas is a diligent and honest member of staff.

This piece has discussed the different types of comma and the misuse associated with some of them. Everyone who desires to write clearly must carefully and accurately deploy these different forms of comma for clarity’s sake.

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