Top 3 Comma Errors To Avoid

Alternate title: Oh God a Post on Commas Whyyyyyyy

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Well, no. We don’t have to. But a couple of things happened recently that brought us here. The first was a response I left on Twitter.

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It was more a subtle jab at my grammar-nerdy self than an actual question (hence the lack of question mark). So imagine my surprise when several people replied like this:

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The second thing was the responses to this question I posed in my writing group on Facebook.

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I’ll spare you the screenshots of the replies. Suffice it to say the general consensus was:

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So here we are! I decided to focus on three errors only–the three I see most often in critiquing and the editing side gig that has bubbled up from that. I will do my best to keep things concise and free of English teacher jargon.

A couple of side notes before we begin:

1. I live and learned grammar in the USA. The rules I’m addressing relate to American writing conventions, so if you live elsewhere, there may be differences.

2. Grammar rules change as writing and speech evolve. When in doubt, consult the googles, and if you have a publisher, your house rules.

Let’s get this party started!

Error 1: Get that comma out of your compound predicate.

Great, I said I’d minimize the jargon and then I put “compound predicate” in the first heading. *rolls eyes*

Don’t run away yet, though. This should be painless. We’ll start with a journey back to elementary school grammar.

Complete sentences (or clauses) have two parts: a subject (who or what is doing the thing) and a predicate (what the subject is or what it is doing).

Compound predicates happen when the subject is or is doing two things. Remember how compound words are two words put together (like birdhouse)? Same idea. Using the examples from the chart, I created some compound predicates.

I love strawberries and blueberries. 

Henry laughed his head and ass off.

The tornado has crossed the state border and tossed a cow into the lake.

I suspect the confusion around this error came from commas in a series of items in a predicate.

The tornado has crossed the state border, tossed a cow into the lake, and laughed at the splash.

Trick to remember: If the subject is doing only two things, no comma. Save the commas for lists in this case.

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Error 2: Two adjectives–to comma or not to comma?

Consider these sentences:

The young woman wore a bright red sweater.

The tall, hairy man played the kazoo. 

Why is there a comma between the adjectives in the second sentence but not the first?

When deciding whether or not to put a comma between adjectives, a common (albeit somewhat vague) strategy that doesn’t always work out is to put an “and” between the adjectives. The thinking is if the sentence still makes sense, you need a comma.

The young woman wore a bright and red sweater.

The tall and hairy man played the kazoo.

“Bright and red sweater” isn’t how we would describe something while “tall and hairy” is, so in these cases the strategy works. But what about a sentence like this?

The strong, brick wall had chalk drawings on it.

The strong and brick wall had chalk drawings on it. 

The second one isn’t right, so no comma, right? Well…

Ask yourself this: is “strong” describing the brick or the wall?

Allow me to delve a bit into the jargon again. We’re talking about the difference between compound adjectives and coordinating adjectives.

In compound (there it is again!) adjectives, two adjectives act as a single adjective to describe the noun. In the sweater example, bright red is a color all its own–you could say “bright” is describing “red.” Coordinating adjectives are separate adjectives that carry their own weight. In the case of our tall, hairy man, he is both tall and hairy–“tall” is not describing “hairy.” He is not “tall hairy.”

So for our strong, brick wall, strong is describing the wall…unless the wall is made of only one strong brick.

Trick to remember: Ask yourself if the first adjective is describing the second adjective or the noun. If it’s describing the other adjective (as in bright red), no comma.

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Error 3: Missing commas could mean your house is eating pie.

While many comma errors involve chasing them away from where they shouldn’t be, this one is about putting them where they rightly belong. The jargon for this point is participle phrase, which is a group of words that function as an adjective. This post does a great job describing how to use them, and I’m taking my examples from it to expand upon.

Though they use verbs (and are thus used to show simultaneous actions), participle phrases describe more about the noun. For example:

Cooper enjoyed dinner at Audrey’s house, agreeing to a large slice of cherry pie even though he was full to the point of bursting. 

Now compare to this sentence:

Maria risked petting the pit bull wagging its stubbed tail. 

Why does the first sentence need a comma while the second one doesn’t? The answer lies in what the participle phrase is describing.

In the first case, Cooper is agreeing to the pie while simultaneously enjoying dinner. In the second, the pit bull is wagging its tail while Maria is simultaneously taking the risk to pet it. The position of the noun connected to the participle phrase is important: if the first sentence was written without the comma, it would say that Audrey’s house was agreeing to pie. If the second sentence had a comma, it would say that Maria was wagging a stubbed tail.

Trick to remember: Add “that is/who is” or “that was/who was” before the participle phrase. If it makes sense, you don’t need a comma.

Maria risked petting the pit bull that was wagging its stubbed tail.

Cooper enjoyed dinner at Audrey’s house that was agreeing to a large slice of cherry pie even though he was full to the point of bursting. 

Pit bulls wag tails, and houses don’t eat pie.

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That wraps up my three most-seen comma errors! Have you struggled with any of these? What other confusions do you have about commas? Comment away! I may do a follow-up post to this one. 

 

10 thoughts on “Top 3 Comma Errors To Avoid

  1. Hmm. Even if it’s technically wrong, I think I’d rather write “strong brick wall” than “strong, brick wall.” It just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s like the two words, brick wall, are the noun, and strong is the adjective. I would never treat the two adjectives here as equals and swap them, writing something like “The brick, strong wall had chalk drawings on it.” To me that makes no sense. Writing “The hairy, tall man played the kazoo” also isn’t something I’d write, but it makes sense to me. It seems less offensive to swap tall and hairy than to swap strong and brick.

    Though I’m an American, I don’t know all the rules of American English grammar, so maybe there’s something going on here making me feel the way I do that you could address as well…? I do have a lot of reading experience (over 50 years), so it’s not like I’m just shooting the breeze about this. Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi! Great question. This is where the art of writing gets to come play—even if something is technically correct, it doesn’t always “work.” Prose has a natural rhythm, and sometimes the rules can get in the way. When editing, I’ve noted more than a few times something to the effect of “technically this should be X, Y, Z, but that sounds bizarre.” Those cases either get a pass or they get totally reworked.

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      • I can buy that. 🙂 After writing the above comment, I went on Google and searched for the phrase, “strong brick wall.” After getting past all the image results, I saw some results with the comma and some without. I think I’ve read it more often without the comma, and thus that feels more appropriate to me.

        I read another writer’s opinion that, for today’s readers, commas should be avoided unless absolutely necessary, because readers today are so into speed reading, commas break their flow. I can agree with them to a degree, but still continue to use the Oxford comma. 🙂 So I can imagine, when you’re editing, you have to point out the rules to the writer, but also advise on whether breaking any particular rule is okay in a given situation or a total rework would be better. Thanks for the great article and your professional response. We need more people like you in this world. Cheers.

        Liked by 1 person

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