Okay, okay, so I promised a blog post about commas. Commas—what was I thinking? Haven’t we been here before? Don’t we use these smug little buggers all the time and have a fairly good grasp of where they go, mostly? Well, it appears that some do, but some do not. So, just for posterity, to counter the comma confusion out there I’ve decided to make this post about when NOT to use a comma. You see, commas are the punctuation mark most open to interpretation. Some people add pausal commas designed to tell the reader how to read a sentence, which is especially important if you want to impart nuance. Some swear by the serial, or Oxford, comma; others believe it is necessary only in certain cases where omitting it would cause ambiguity. (I’m team “largely unnecessary,” in case you were wondering). There are few hard and fast comma “rules,” but where NOT to put them is generally agreed upon.
So where should you NOT put a comma?
Don’t put a (single) comma between a subject and its verb, e.g. A girl named Sandra, pulled Miranda’s hair.
The subject is “Sandra” and the verb is “pulled,” so separating Sandra from the action she is performing is incorrect. This is a common comma error because many authors have been conditioned to (correctly) place a comma after an introductory participial phrase (E.g. Exhausted by the day’s work, he fell fast asleep), an introductory adverbial phrase (E.g. After eating, the sisters cleared away the plates), or a dependent opening clause (e.g. If you are seeking encouragement, a writer’s forum may be useful). Having said that, such commas are not always necessary, especially in very short and unambiguous sentences beginning with an adverbial phrase.
In the “hair-pulling” example, all of the information is restrictive. What I mean by that is that it is essential to the meaning of the clause. E.g. It was not just any girl who pulled Miranda’s hair, it was a girl named Sandra.
The exception would be if non-restrictive (or parenthetical) information were added after the subject (Sandra), in which case, two commas would be used and the supplementary information would be said to be set off “in apposition.” For example: A girl named Sandra, who used to be a friend of mine, pulled Miranda’s hair.
A good test of whether something is in apposition, and is therefore non-restrictive, is that it can be removed and the sentence will still make sense.
A comma should not be used between a restrictive phrase and the noun it belongs to. E.g. The man with the bushy beard stole the bread. Not: The man, with the bushy beard, stole the bread. Or, The teachers who got the sack had criminal records. Not: The teachers, who got the sack, had criminal records. The second would imply that all of the teachers had criminal records, not just those who got the sack. However, note that if the information about the man’s beard were intended to be in apposition, it would be correct to set if off that way. E.g. The man, with his bushy beard hidden beneath a large scarf, stole the bread.
Similarly, only use commas around a person’s name when that information is non-restrictive (supplementary), e.g. My daughter, Selena, has just turned four months old. Because I only have one daughter, and her name, incidentally, is Selena, writing it that way is correct. If the name were removed, it would still be true. However, had I more than one daughter would not define which daughter I was talking about. In that case, it should read: My daughter Selena has just turned four months old. I have seen writers (and even some journalists) break this rule often, usually writing something like:
Prominent scientist, Bob Biggles, won the Gaffaw Waffle award for verbose scientific writing last night.
If you were to remove the name of the award winner (Bob Biggles) the sentence would become: “Prominent scientist won the Gaffaw Waffle award…” and would not make sense without the addition of an article (E.g. A prominent …).
Another way to tell the difference between restrictive and non-restrictive phrases is that restrictive ones are usually preceded by “that” and non-restrictive by “which.” Generally, only non-restrictive/which clauses are set off with commas. E.g. The cat that sat on the mat was fat. But: The cat, which sat on the mat, was fat. In the second example, the information about the mat comes across as supplementary. In the first, the information defines which cat we’re talking about—the one on the mat.
There are several other places where you should not put a comma (in your ear, for example—don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in there), but those are the main ones I see when editing.
One day I’ll get around to writing a blog post about where to put commas, but that will be a whole lot longer! You’ve been warned.