Justin Tadlock

C is for commonly confusing commas

Part C of the writing well on the Internet series

This article in the ABCs of Writing series covers the letter “C,” which means that I’m writing about the comma. It’s the most dangerous part of English, yet it’s the most useful.

I had to transform myself into a grammar Nazi to write about the comma because even I don’t always use it correctly.

This article has many other great “C” tips also. So, if the comma usage section gets too rigid, scan over it and read some of the other stuff.

Capital / Capitol

This one’s actually easy. The only time you should use the word “capitol” is when you’re talking about a building. Use “capital” in all other senses.

The senators met at the capitol to discuss new laws.
Montgomery is the capital of Alabama.
The capitol is located in the capital.

Case

“I will never start a sentence with ‘In many cases.’” Now, repeat this to yourself five times.

In many cases, girls are smarter than boys are. (Unnecessary)
Girls are often smarter than boys are. (Much better)

Climactic / Climatic

“Climatic” refers to the climate. “Climactic” refers to the highest point or greatest point, such as the climax of a story.

Hazardous climatic conditions caused global warming to make 20 years of progress in fewer than five months.
That movie had the most climactic action scene that I’ve seen in years.

Cliché

A great college professor of mine once said, “The reason why clichés are clichés is that they are so profoundly true.”

With that said, it is unwise to use clichés in your writing. There are also sites, such as the Cliché Finder that will find clichés for you.

A cliché is an overused expression that has lost its original meaning. It’s lost that creative “spice” that was probably evident the first few times someone said it.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes clichés are useful, but most of the time, using them makes you look like a lazy writer, someone without imagination. They lack any suggestive power or evoke any emotion in the reader because they are overused to a point where the phrases should be removed from the language altogether.

Sometimes, you can get away with twisting or reconstructing the cliché with new words or using some other type of play on words to change its meaning. One of my favorite examples, even though it’s a bit cheesy, is a quote from Quincy in Love & Basketball.

All’s fair in love and basketball. (Movie quote)
All is fair in love and war. (Original cliché)

I’ll never forget that quote, and that’s why it’s a good use of the cliché. It makes it memorable.

Comma

Comma usage is broad enough to warrant its own post, so I might not cover every use in this article alone. Some of the easiest rules to break in English are comma rules, but they’re also some of the best to break when trying to capture an audience.

Comma series

When writing three or more items in a series, there are two ways to use the comma.

I like blogging, Web designing, and playing in the rain.
I like long walks on the beach, bathing in the sunlight and horseback riding.

The latter has become more prevalent, but I still use the former because I like to keep things organized. Occasionally, you might find yourself in a situation where the last comma is needed.

My favorite dishes are frog legs, fish and chips and pork and beans. (A little confusing)
My favorite dishes are frog legs, fish and chips, and pork and beans. (Not confusing)

Always omit the last comma in a business name.

He works for Sanford, Son and Company.

Parenthetic expressions

It is tough to decide when to use a comma with parenthetic expressions. A parenthetic expression is adding an extra or explanatory expression in your sentence.

Ricky’s dad, Joe Bob, completed his first tour of the world yesterday.

A good rule to test is the “which, where, and when” test. Typically, when a parenthetical expression begins with one of these words, you can safely enclose it in commas.

The movie version of Doom, which sucked whale ass, isn’t nearly as great as the video game.
In 1984, when my mother had her first child, some of the greatest movies hit the box office.
The Uptown Creek, where I landed my first kiss, was the place I thought I had become a man.

Independent clauses

Use a comma before “and,” “but,” and “so” if they separate clauses that could stand alone as a sentence.

She’s a girl that’s in love with a boy, and he’s a boy that’s in love with a girl.
I like big butts and I cannot lie, but my best friend likes slender legs.
The bus leaves at 6 p.m., so you should arrive a few minutes early.

Comma splice

A comma splice is an incorrect separation of two independent clauses with a comma. Don’t write these sentences with only a comma. Use a conjunction (and, but, as, because, etc.), a semicolon, or separate them into sentences.

She’s a girl that’s in love with a boy, he’s a boy that’s in love with a girl. (Incorrect)
She’s a girl that’s in love with a boy; he’s a boy that’s in love with a girl. (Correct)
She’s a girl that’s in love with a boy. He’s a boy that’s in love with a girl. (Correct)

Only use comma splices for effect, and do it as seldom as possible.

Rhythm

You can use commas to add rhythm to your sentences. In this instance, you can omit “and” to break from your rigid style of writing.

Autumn brings me back to a place I once knew, gives me a surreal feeling of longing, reminds me of my youth.

Confusion

Make sure phrases at the beginning of your sentences match the subject. Don’t use commas to separate things that would make your sentences confusing. In this example, a reader may be confused about which thing is old and worn out.

Although old and worn out, he bought the car. (What or who is “old and worn out”?)
He bought the car, even though it was old and worn out. (The car is “old and worn out.”)

Comma / coma

This isn’t a tough one, but I wanted to add it because my Korean students pronounce “comma” like “coma” a lot. I frequently draw pictures of a man in a coma to show them what they’re actually saying.

A “coma” is a state of deep sleep or unconsciousness. A “comma” is a punctuation mark used to separate ideas or parts of a sentence.

Conscience / conscious / conscientious

“Conscience” is your moral guide. “Conscious” means being aware of your surroundings or being awake. “Conscientious” means that you are guided by your “conscience.”

Do you believe that Hannibal Lecter had a conscience?
A man in a coma is not conscious.
He made a conscientious decision to push that man off the bridge to save the others.

Certainly

Remove it from your speech. Remove it from your writing. Seriously. It’s often used to add some “oomph” to your sentences, but it makes your writing look unprofessional.

He certainly cannot move my bed without permission. (Bad)
He cannot move my bed without permission. (Much better)

Compare / contrast

Don’t confuse these two. “Compare” means to point out resemblances, and “contrast” is to point out differences.

His book contrasts the beach and the mountains.
She compared Chevy and Ford trucks in her review.

Colon

The best use of the colon (:) is when writing a list. However, it’s often misused when written before a list. It must always follow a noun.

My favorite snacks are: candy bars, ice cream, and potato chips. (Incorrect)
He gave me three choices: sex, drugs, or bluegrass. (Correct)

Commonly misspelled “C” words

calendar
camouflage
cantaloupe
cemetery
chagrined
changeable
collectible
colonel
column
committee
completely
concede
continuous
controversy
convenient
coolly
courteous

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Buy 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves' from Amazon

One of the books that I’ve always wanted to read is Eats, Shoots and Leaves. By looking at the title, you can see that the sentence will have various meanings if the comma is placed in different places. He eats, shoots and leaves. He eats shoots and leaves.

Most of the reviews I’ve read have had nothing less than praise for the book. I often flip through the pages when I’m at the bookstore, wishing I had a few extra dollars on hand. It’s definitely on my “must read” list.

As always, post your feedback, call me on any errors (this is a learning experience for me too), and add your own ideas to the list.

Do you have any other comma tips? This is a large section and deserves much more attention than it received in this post.