Comma Chameleon



I realize that on the grand scale of interesting things, punctuation is pretty far down the list. (In a recent survey, it was in a dead heat with stovepipes, just behind pocket lint.)

Punctuation is a dying art. I’m not sure whether this is the writers’ or the readers’ fault, but I mostly blame the writers. It’s as if chefs got careless about seasoning.

Periods can present problems, but they’re fairly low-maintenance, because most people know when to stop. Not so with semicolons. Many abuse them; few can even explain how they differ from colons. Apostrophes are increasingly misused or ignored. I’m no fan of McDonald’s, but at least the company wears its apostrophe proudly (unlike apostates such as Walgreens).

Hyphens have become a mind-numbing mystery, rarely used where they’re needed—and often wrongly placed where a long dash should be. Parentheses confuse a lot of people (do periods go inside or outside?). Question marks seem easy, but let me ask if you think the one at the end of this sentence is correct? Because it’s not.

But today I want to home in on the comma. Lately I’ve noticed a tendency in newspapers and magazines to reflexively inject a comma when a noun is described by two adjectives—something we do in English all the time. Trouble is, you don’t always want a comma in a two-adjectives-plus-noun construction. For example: a shiny, antique Rolls. I just can’t buy that comma. Here’s one I do buy: an honest, hard-working man.

It’s a subtle distinction: Are both adjectives equally focused on the noun (he’s an honest man and a hard-working man), or does the first adjective describe a cohesive adjective-noun unit (antique Rolls). I reject a comma because shiny applies to antique Rolls as if that phrase were a single word. How silly would it be to write a shiny, thing?

To get technical, we’re talking here about coordinate adjectives. A useful guideline: the comma is likely if it’s a comfortable substitute for and. You’d call a man “honest and hard-working,” but it sounds clunky to call a car “shiny and antique.”

Here are some recent ill-advised print-media commas: “Modest, working-class suburb” (the working-class suburb is modest; the comma is superfluous). “A slim, 30-year-old bartender” (no comma: “slim” further describes the 30-year-old mixologist). “The original, 1879 site” (that comma is too bizarre for comment).

Admittedly, there’s a lot of gray area here. The writer’s intent must be analyzed, and in some cases interpretations will vary. Here’s a two-in-one-sentence example: “from a confused drug-riddled adolescence to a final, eye-catching impression of her.” I’d put a comma after “confused” and no comma after “final.”

I’m glad when journalists promote traditional punctuation, but comma overcompensation is as inadvisable as any other kind.

— Tom Stern

Posted on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, at 11:28 am

14 Comments on Comma Chameleon

14 responses to “Comma Chameleon”

  1. This is a suggestion for a future topic. The most misused words that I read now are “farther” and “further”. I was taught that the first should be used to convey distance, such as “He hiked farther into the mountains” , and that the second refers to something that is ‘more’, such as “He refused to discuss it any further.” These two examples are fairly clear. However, instances of misuse occur when the issue is cloudier, such as “It was too steep to go up the mountain any farther [further?] without ropes.” And due to the murkiness, one now sees many errors, such as “He refused to live any further away from his mother.” And many times the misuse just blatantly occurs, without any reason for using one word or the other. This is now seen in all levels of printed matter.

    • We too prefer farther over further when referencing physical distance. Please see our post Farther vs. Further as well as our Confusing Words and Homonyms entry of the same name. However, the use of further in relation to distance goes back many years, causing us to stop short of calling this a misuse. Even our 1934 Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, states “The forms further and farther are not always differentiated by writers, but further is often preferred for reference to time, quantity, or degree, and farther for spatial distance.” More recent dictionaries are even more forgiving. Dictionary.com contains as the first definition of further: “at or to a greater distance; farther.”

  2. MJBuehn says:

    I love receiving the e-newsletter and read it regularly. The Comma Chameleon lesson also mentioned the issue of hyphens versus long dashes – an issue that I could use some help with. (I generally make it a point to not end a sentence with a preposition, but to my surprise just read a blog from a Merriam Webster editor explaining that it is often acceptable to do so. If you would publish some guidance on hyphens versus long dashes I would be much obliged!

  3. Mary says:

    I am starting a photography business and would like to make sure that I am using the correct punctuation in the name before I launch it. It will be called, “Hey, Love. Photography”. Is this correct? Any help would be very much appreciated, thank you!

    • Business names, to a reasonable extent, can be more up to one’s sense of aesthetics than in strict accordance with rules governing formal prose. Our Rule 7a of Commas says, “Use a comma after certain words that introduce a sentence, such as well, yes, why, hello, hey, etc.” Therefore, we can see why you used a comma after the word Hey. Depending on the sense you wish to convey, you could place a period, comma, dash, or no punctuation following Love.

  4. Chris says:

    “Hyphens have become a mind-numbing mystery, rarely used where they’re needed—and often wrongly placed where a long dash should be.”

    This is only because it is near-impossible to write a long dash on a standard keyboard. Your complaint should be to keyboard manufacturers.

    • To form a long dash (em dash) on standard keyboards, type the first word, then hold down the ALT key while typing 0151 on the numerical pad on the right side of your keyboard. Type ALT 0150 for an en dash. You may also be able to form these dashes on your handheld device by holding down the hyphen on the number and symbol keyboard.

  5. Fred B. says:

    I am sure you will hear from many on this one. Some will say not every Rolls is antique. As for the many grey areas, if a pause adds clarity (or a desired sense of rhythm), a comma might be appropriate, don’t you think?

    • We haven’t heard yet from anyone maintaining that not every Rolls is antique, but anyone who thinks this is missing Mr. Stern’s point. An antique shiny Rolls just doesn’t sound right. A few of Stern’s other examples are close calls and require some consideration. In this article, he was speaking to a specific job assigned to the comma beyond its common job of indicating a pause. But as for the gray areas you mention, there certainly is room for writers to exercise discretion. Looking at our Comma rules, we see sprinkled throughout expressions such as “generally unnecessary,” “optional,” “may not be necessary,” “usually not necessary,” and “add a comma if it would avoid confusion.”

  6. Janet P. says:

    How about the comma preceding the “but” in the first sentence of the third paragraph? My understanding is that a comma is overkill in that case since the word “but” implies a pause. The same with a comma before the word “and” when one is listing things. (i.e., She took the carrots, celery, onions, and peppers out of the refrigerator.) The comma after the word “and” is as extraneous as that before the “but” in your third paragraph.

    • According to our Rule 3b of Commas, when independent clauses are joined by a connector (conjunction), a comma should be placed at the end of the first clause. Since “Periods can present problems” and “they’re fairly low maintenance” are each independent clauses (can stand on their own as sentences), a comma is needed.

      Much has been written regarding commas before and in lists (these are called series or Oxford commas). We believe that including the Oxford comma avoids misunderstandings, and thus we prefer to use it. Please see our Rule 1 of Commas as well as our e-newsletter article from the week preceding “Comma Chameleon” titled Lack of Commas Costs Company Millions.

  7. Janine S. says:

    I wanted to ask you what you meant by your words above: “But today I want to home in on the comma.” Did you mean to use the word “hone” instead?

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