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Pity the Poor Comma

In another era, the comma was ubiquitous. It was the beloved "little engine that could." Today, the comma has become a "poor relation"—often overlooked and, at times, resented. Yet, it is still an important element that can save us from confusion and distinguishes writers and their clients as literate people.

Full disclosure: I'm quite fond of the comma, even if I do agree that we no longer need to use it in a sequence of three short words such as "red, white and blue." Nor do we need it in lists such as

  • Asian Elephant
  • Bengal Tiger
  • Javan Rhino
  • Western Lowland Gorilla*

As do many writers and editors, I have my list of most egregious omissions. Below are five of them.

1. Why are some people adverse to using commas around expressions such as namely, i.e., and e.g.? You have interrupted the flow of the sentence, so help the reader out and add commas.

Members can now receive our weekly newsletter in several ways, namely, via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, or Twitter.

2. I realize that many unseasoned writers continue to stumble over when to use "which" or "that". However, if you use "which", the phrase must be surrounded by commas.

The book, which was published in 2013, quickly became a national bestseller.

3. One of the most common omissions of the comma is around two prepositional phrases that are completed by the same word. Perhaps this usage is going the way of the dinosaur, but I still prefer to use commas in this instance.

He had an interest in, and read many articles about, neuroscience.

4. Another popular omission is in compound sentences. If the sentence is short, then you do not need to use the comma to separate the clauses, but if the clauses are long, they should be separated by a comma.

She was afraid of cats but they loved her.

They argued for hours about which color would work best on the living room walls, but they finally agreed on Wedgwood blue.

5. A participial phrase at the beginning of the sentence should end with a comma unless it is followed by a verb.

Running up the stairs, she silently prayed that she wouldn't miss the train.

Cascading down from the sky was the most beautiful rainbow that I had ever seen.

The comma serves to make reading and comprehension easier, so please don't relegate it to obscurity.

*The animals listed above are endangered species.

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