The Comma: a pause between parts

The other day, I was sent a screenshot from my son who was at college, carrying out an ‘Editing and proofreading’ exercise. It was a multiple-choice question, as follows:

Q. What should Melanie Richards do to ensure she buys the right food?

  • She should buy cream, cheese, rolls and fruit salad.
  • She should buy cream cheese, rolls, fruit and salad.
  • She should buy cream, cheese rolls, and fruit salad.
  • She should ask the secretary for advice and for more commas in future!

The reason my son sent this to me was because he was stumped…and so was his tutor!

Commas have four different uses: listing, joining, gapping, and bracketing. Below is an example of each:

The listing comma simply separates items in a list.

  • Melanie Richards bought cream, cheese, cream cheese, cream cheese rolls, fruit, fruit salad, and salad.

The joining comma joins two complete sentences into one, using a connecting word such as, and, or, but, while and yet.

  • Melanie Richards was confused about the shopping list, but she played it safe and bought every combination she could think of.

The gapping comma shows that one or more repeating words have been left out.

  • Some of Melanie’s friends thought that the green salad was the right choice; others, the fruit salad.

The bracketing comma can be used in the same way as parenthesis, to note an aside or to mark off a weaker aspect of the sentence. The trick with these is that the sentence still makes sense without the interruption.

  • Melanie Richards, realising that she didn’t know precisely what she should be buying, asked the secretary for advice.
  • Melanie Richards looked at the list and, as the secretary had gone home for the day, decided to leave the shopping until tomorrow.

This, essentially, is the nuts and bolts of the comma, but people can get very excited about using commas, and put them in all sorts of places, where they are not required. This has the effect, of slowing down the reading experience, and causing pauses, where pauses are not, perhaps, required. If you want to, deliberately, reduce the pace of your writing, then you can include more commas, if you wish.

On the other hand some people deliberately exclude commas because it speeds up the reading experience. As long as the text makes sense and no confusion is caused by the lack of commas then there is no reason why they should be included as the reader will take natural pauses as they read through the text.

In fiction writing, the rules do not always apply, but it is important that the text makes sense to the reader, and that no confusion is likely to be caused by the lack of, or too many, commas.

So, back to Melanie and her head-scratching list. What should she do? As standalone sentences, each one of the three lists is accurate. But, as an exercise in editing and proofreading, the information provided to Melanie is unclear. There are many combinations of the food required, and so for Melanie to be certain of what she should buy, she needs to ask her secretary for advice and for more commas.

However, I cannot end this entry without mentioning the serial – or Oxford – comma. This is the comma that is used after the last but one item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’. It has been the subject of much debate, and people either love it or they hate it, but it does play an important role. Consider the following:

  • Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector…

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence implies that, either Nelson Mandela is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids, or there is an 800-year-old demigod who collects sex aids. I suspect, there were meant to be three separate encounters, but because the Oxford comma was omitted, the meaning is unclear (albeit amusing). By the way, this was reported as a real example from The Times of London newspaper. 🙂

What is…Ellipsis (or ‘dot-dot-dot’!)?

The ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a series of three full stops, used to show an omission in the text. In fiction writing, an ellipsis is often used to denote a pause (not an interruption – that’s something different), an unfinished thought, a trailing off, or to create a dramatic or ironic effect:

“I’m not sure if … what I meant to say was …”

The door closed slowly behind her …

“You are joking … aren’t you?”

Sentences that end in a question mark, or an exclamation mark, can be written with the ellipsis before or after:

“How did you … ?” or “How did you? …”

Technically speaking, there should be one full space before and after the three full stops, but when formatting a document from left-justified to fully justified, the characters are often padded out, leaving something like this:

Before: “Hello … how are you?”       After: “Hello . . . how are you?

The latter can be distracting to the eye as it takes up a more space, and in my opinion, does not give a professional look, either on an e-reader or in printed form.

Fortunately, most word-processing programs recognise three full stops together as an ellipsis and can autocorrect them to signify one character. There may be an ellipsis already built in to the character set: in Microsoft Word, the ellipsis is obtained by pressing the keys: ctrl-alt-full stop. It inserts half a space before and after, and does not pad out when changing the justification of the text. Worth remembering.

One other thing: there are only ever three full stops in an ellipsis – in English, anyway – not four, five, or six, as I have seen! 🙂