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Commas, Conjunctions, and Modifiers

By Jennifer Rappaport

Many writers and even editors have trouble deciding where to place the commas in a sentence in which a modifying phrase or clause appears after a conjunction. The following are correctly punctuated examples of such sentences:

He scratched his head and, fretting over the punctuation, added a comma.
She forgot to add the commas, and if it were a test she would have failed.
She omitted the commas, and, to her regret, no one understood her sentence.

When punctuating these types of sentences, you must first determine whether the conjunction joins two independent clauses or verbs in a compound predicate. (In a compound predicate, two verbs share a subject.)

Let’s look at the first example.

Compound Predicates

He scratched his head and, fretting over the punctuation, added a comma.

Here, the conjunction (and) joins verbs (scratched and added) in a compound predicate.

Placing commas in this type of sentence is straightforward:

  • Do not place a comma before the conjunction in a compound predicate.
  • Always use commas around phrases (such as fretting over the punctuation) that intervene in a compound predicate.

Now let’s look at the next two examples.

Independent Clauses

She forgot to add the commas, and if it were a test she would have failed.
She omitted the commas, and, to her regret, no one understood her sentence.

In each of these examples, the conjunction joins two independent clauses and thus a comma appears before and. A comma generally precedes a conjunction that joins two independent clauses. (The comma is optional if the clauses are short and closely related: “Lightning appeared and thunder soon followed.”)

But why are there commas around to her regret but not around if it were test?

Let’s look at each example separately.

Independent Clauses with Essential Modifying Phrase or Clause
She forgot to add the commas, and if it were a test she would have failed.

The Principle. A short modifying phrase or clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence should not be set off from the rest of the sentence by commas at both ends. Thus, in the example above, no commas are used around the modifying clause if it were a test since the clause is short and essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The Test. You can test whether the phrase or clause is essential by omitting it. If the resulting sentence makes no sense, the phrase or clause is essential. In the example above, the sentence cannot read, “She forgot to add the commas, and she would have failed.”

Other Considerations. If the essential modifying phrase or clause is more than a few words long, however, you should place a comma at the end of it, to make the sentence easier to read:

She forgot to add the commas, and if it were a test instead of a homework assignment, she would have failed.

Though not necessary, you could also insert a comma for readability after the short clause if it were a test:

She forgot to add the commas, and if it were a test, she would have failed.
Independent Clauses with Nonessential Modifying Phrase or Clause
She omitted the commas, and, to her regret, no one understood her sentence.

The Principle. A nonessential phrase or clause must be set off from the rest of the sentence. In this sentence, to her regret is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The Test. The sentence could read, “She omitted the commas, and no one understood her sentence.” Because the phrase to her regret can be omitted, it must be set off from the sentence.

Other Considerations. Some writers may prefer to omit the comma before and to avoid hemming in the conjunction. The comma before and is optional because the independent clauses are short and the comma is not needed for clarity:

She omitted the commas and, to her regret, no one understood her sentence.

You could also, as Claire Kehrwald Cook suggests, “substitute a pair of dashes for the commas enclosing the modifier,” or you could “transpose the modifier” (128):

She omitted the commas, and—to her regret—no one understood her sentence.
She omitted the commas, and no one understood her sentence, to her regret.

Cook also notes that when a transitional adverb, such as fortunately, blends into a sentence, you could use commas around the term if you wish to emphasize the adverb, but they aren’t necessary (125):

She omitted the commas, but fortunately everyone understood her sentence.

But if the adverb separates the verb from its object, then commas are needed (126):

She remembered, fortunately, to add the commas, and everyone understood her sentence.

Work Cited

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Published 4 April 2017

To Splice or Not to Splice?

By Angela Gibson

Writers should generally not use a comma to connect two independent clauses, and editors of fiction and nonfiction should be alert to this misuse of the comma. The following examples violate this principle and demonstrate what is known as the “comma splice”:

Canceling your vacation is a horrible idea, don’t do it.
The students were in an uproar, some of them walked out of class.
Winter coats should be warm, they don’t need to contain down fill.
I feel like going for a walk, I’ll take the dog out.

You can fix a comma splice in a number of ways: a new sentence can be formed; a different mark of punctuation, like a semicolon or a dash, can be substituted for the comma; or a conjunction can be used between the clauses:

Canceling your vacation is a horrible idea. Don’t do it.
The students were in an uproar; some of them walked out of class.
Winter coats should be warm, but they don’t need to contain down fill.
I feel like going for a walk, so I’ll take the dog out.

Note, however, that commas are acceptable in idiomatic constructions when the second part of the sentence completes the sense of the first and in a series of three or more items:

It’s not just the customers who are exasperated, it’s the employees too.
The greater the risk, the greater the reward.
We came, we saw, we conquered.
Dinner was over, the guests had departed, and all that remained was a giant pile of dirty dishes.

Comma splices are also acceptable in fiction. In dialogue and first-person narration, for example, a character might be excited or upset and thus speak in a rush. The minimal pause conveyed by a comma can clarify sentence structure while conveying the character’s state of mind. Or the author’s style might use splices frequently for some other effect.

In editing fiction a copyeditor is often justified in making emendations for basic points of grammar, and the emendations required to avoid a comma splice are minimal, so a writer may not find them intrusive. Even a writer who uses comma splices as a device may occasionally do so unintentionally in exposition. If an author of fiction consistently breaks a rule, however, an editor would be wise to consider the author’s purpose before making changes. Editors of fiction should also be mindful of how they emend for a comma splice. Do not, for example, introduce a semicolon if the author does not use them elsewhere.

Published 28 March 2017

Comma Sense

By Jennifer Rappaport

Many usage guides provide guidance on when to use commas and when to omit them. Some commas are needed to prevent misreading, some are harmful, and others are optional. Since the mid–twentieth century, usage experts, such as Theodore M. Bernstein, have advocated using “a minimum of commas” (359). Claire Kehrwald Cook warns, “Commas call attention to words. They make readers pause and take notice. Unless you want that effect, don’t use commas that the sentence structure doesn’t require” (125). In other words, use commas only when they help make your meaning clear.

So when does a sentence have too many commas, and when does it have too few? Take the following example:

What time are we eating mother?

If mother is on the menu, then this sentence requires no commas. If, however, the question is addressed to mother, then a comma should be added before “mother”:

What time are we eating, mother?

Here’s another example:

This evening, the moon came out, and, as usual, the owls hooted.

You could include all these commas, but they might distract your reader. Since any of the commas could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence, you might pare down the punctuation in any one of a number of ways, depending on what you wish to emphasize:

This evening the moon came out, and as usual the owls hooted.
This evening, the moon came out and as usual the owls hooted.
This evening the moon came out, and, as usual, the owls hooted.

When the absence of commas might cause misreading, it is best to revise. The following sentence contains several necessary commas:

This evening the moon came out, but, as I explained later, I didn’t hear the owls hooting, because I went to bed before they appeared.

The first comma is necessary to separate two long independent clauses joined by but, the next two are needed to set off the inessential clause as I explained later, and the last comma is needed to make clear that the reason the speaker didn’t hear the owls hooting was because the speaker went to bed before they appeared and not, say, because the speaker was wearing earplugs.

To pare down the commas, you might revise as follows:

This evening the moon came out, but—as I explained later—I didn’t hear the owls hooting, because I went to bed before they appeared.
This evening the moon came out. As I explained later, I didn’t hear the owls hooting, because I went to bed before they appeared.

When it comes to commas, usage guides can help you with the rules, but ultimately you should use comma sense.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Theodore M. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. Atheneum, 1965.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Published 24 March 2017

President’s Day: A Singular Holiday?

By Jennifer Rappaport

When it comes to styling the holiday variously known as President’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Presidents Day, authorities disagree not only about what to call the holiday but also about what the holiday celebrates.

The Federal Holiday

If you look up “Presidents’ Day” in Webster’s, you are directed to the entry “Washington’s Birthday,” the name of the federal holiday according to the National Archives (“Federal Holidays”). Webster’s notes that the holiday—celebrating George Washington, the first president of the United States—was previously celebrated on 22 February, Washington’s actual birthday (“George Washington’s Birthday”). It is now observed the third Monday in February, thanks to the 1968 Uniform Monday Holiday Law, established to designate Monday as the day to observe most federal holidays (Arbelbide).

The Holiday State by State

Although most states shifted the day of the holiday to Monday, not all took on the official federal holiday name (Arbelbide). For example, Minnesota calls the holiday “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthday,” celebrating both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (Minnesota State, Legislature). The official state calendar for Alabama lists the holiday as “George Washington / Thomas Jefferson Birthday,” commemorating Thomas Jefferson as well as Washington (“2017 Holiday Schedule”). Washington State calls the holiday “Presidents’ Day,” “celebrated as the anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington” (Washington State, Legislature).

The Holiday in Advertising

When the Uniform Monday Holiday Law took effect in 1971, “only two days separated Abraham Lincoln’s Friday birthday of February 12 from the Washington’s Birthday holiday that fell on February 15—the third Monday in February” (Arbelbide). Ever since, advertisers have taken advantage of the proximity of the two days to promote sales, referring to the holiday as “President’s Day,” “Presidents’ Day,” or “Presidents Day.”

The Holiday in Your Prose

So the correct way to refer to the holiday in your prose depends on your subject. If you are writing about the federal holiday, call it “Washington’s Birthday.” If you are writing about the holiday as it is observed in a particular state, consult the state’s official Web site. In other contexts, you might use one of the forms with “President” in the name. “President’s Day” uses the singular possessive, so you would likely use this form if you want to refer to a holiday celebrating Washington. “Presidents’ Day,” in the plural possessive, is the form recommended by The Chicago Manual of Style, so in our publications, we would generally use this spelling, which indicates a holiday celebrating Washington and at least one other president (“Holidays”). “Presidents Day” uses “Presidents” as an attributive noun—that is, a noun that acts like an adjective. A noun is attributive “when the relation between the plural head noun and the second noun could be expressed by the prepositions ‘for’ or ‘by’ rather than the possessive ‘of’”—for example, a teachers college is a college for teachers (Einsohn 137). If you want to refer to a holiday that is a day for celebrating all presidents of the United States, you might use this form.

Whatever you choose to call the holiday, 2017 is a good year to learn more about the American presidency and how “the personal, public, ceremonial and executive actions” of our presidents “have had a huge impact on the course of history” (“American Presidency”).

Works Cited

“The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/american-presidency.

Arbelbide, C. L. “By George, It Is Washington’s Birthday!” Prologue Magazine, vol. 31, no. 4, Winter 2004. National Archives, www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2004/winter/gw-birthday-1.html.

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook. 2nd ed., U of California P, 2006.

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017, www.archives.gov/news/federal-holidays.

“George Washington’s Birthday.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 24 Aug. 2016, www.archives.gov/legislative/features/washington.

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec. 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch08/ch08_sec088.html.

Minnesota State, Legislature. 2016 Minnesota Statutes. Ch. 645, sec., subdivision 5. The Office of the Revisor of Statutes, 2016, www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=645.44.

“Presidents’ Day.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/presidents%20day.

“2017 Holiday Schedule.” Inform.alabama.gov, inform.alabama.gov/calendar.aspx. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

“Washington’s Birthday.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/washington’s+birthday.

Washington State, Legislature. Revised Code of Washington. Ch. 1.16, sec. 050d. Washington State Legislature, apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=1.16.050. Accessed 10 Feb. 2017.

Published 17 February 2017

MLK Day the MLA Way

By Jennifer Rappaport

Martin Luther King Day? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? MLK Day? There seems to be no consensus on how to style the name of this federal holiday, established to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. In deciding how to treat the name of the holiday, you should consider your audience and the purpose of your reference.

Consider also the consistent treatment of King’s name in your work. Both “Martin Luther King Jr.” (without a comma before the suffix) and “Martin Luther King, Jr.” (with a comma) are acceptable variations, but in MLA style, a comma always precedes Jr. (read more about suffixes and names in an earlier post).

Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The National Archives calls the holiday “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” following the federal policy to use “the name designated by the law” that established the holiday (“Federal Holidays”). If your goal is to consistently and accurately refer to the text of the legislation, for legal, historical, or archival reasons, use this version.

Martin Luther King Day

Merriam-Webster’s and The American Heritage Dictionary both omit Jr. in the name of the holiday, calling it “Martin Luther King Day,” but not in their entries for the man whom the holiday commemorates. If you want to avoid a discrepancy between King’s name and the holiday celebrating his birthday, you might use a different treatment. Treating the suffix as a parenthetical in the title of the holiday (e.g., “Martin Luther King, Jr., Day”) would not be acceptable—this formulation not only looks awkward but also illogically muddies the distinction between a personal name and a holiday name.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

The Chicago Manual of Style, used by many book publishers, lists the holiday in its “Holidays” section as “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” If you can handle inconsistency in the treatment of personal names and holidays, use this formulation to refer to the holiday—even when styling King’s name with a comma before the suffix, per MLA style.

MLK Day / MLK Jr. Day

Apparently the federally run Corporation for National and Community Service, which uses “MLK Day” on its Web site about King’s birthday, didn’t get the same memo as the National Archives about using the name designated by law for federal holidays. That’s OK: the goal of this site is community outreach, not documenting archival records. In casual contexts, you might use either of these formulations (note: see the title of this blog post).

However you style the name of the holiday, take a moment to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., or find one of the many opportunities for community service taking place to commemorate him.

Works Cited

“Federal Holidays.” National Archives, US National Archives and Records Administration, 3 Jan. 2017, www.archives.gov/news/federal-holidays.

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., sec 8.88, U of Chicago P, 2010, www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/ch08/ch08_sec088.html.

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/king.

“King, Martin Luther, Jr.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 992.

“Martin Luther King Day.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2017, unabridged.merriam-webster.com/collegiate/martin%20luther%20king%20day.

“Martin Luther King Day.” The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language, 3rd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1992, p. 1104.

Published 13 January 2017

When citing a work whose title ends in a question mark or exclamation point, should I also include a period?

The MLA template of core elements calls for a period after the title of a source, but if the title of a source ends in a question mark or exclamation point, do not include a period. Question marks or exclamation points, as stronger marks, always supersede a period:

Albee, Edward. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Signet, 1983.

If, however, the title of the container ends in a question mark or exclamation point, do add a comma after the question mark. MLA style allows a comma after a question mark or exclamation point if the comma facilitates reading or if rewording is impossible. Since a works-cited-list entry cannot be reworded and since the MLA template calls for a comma after the title of a container, retain the comma:

Tomlinson, Hugh, and Graham Burchell. Translators’ introduction. What Is Philosophy?, by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Columbia UP, 1994.

Published 11 October 2016

Does the MLA abbreviate United States U.S. or US?

In its publications, the MLA uses the abbreviation US. (Practices among publishers vary, however, and it is not incorrect to use U.S. Whichever abbreviation you choose, be consistent.)

The MLA prefers to spell out the name United States in the main text of a work, in both adjective and noun forms. It uses the adjective form sparingly.

Published 30 August 2016

Do I use a comma before Jr. and Sr.? What about names followed by roman numerals?

In the main text of your written work, use a suffix that is an essential part of the name—like Jr. or a roman numeral—when you cite a person’s name in full. Do not place a comma before numbered suffixes:

John D. Rockefeller IV

Place a comma before Jr. and Sr.:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

In a sentence, add a comma after Jr. or Sr. if words follow; the suffix is parenthetical:

Sammy Davis, Jr., was a member of the rat pack.

But see the MLA Handbook, section 2.1.2, on inverting such names in the list of works cited.

Published 23 August 2016

How many spaces should I leave after a period?

Leave one space after a period or other concluding punctuation mark, unless your instructor prefers two spaces. Whichever spacing you choose, be sure to use it consistently throughout your paper. See the MLA’s formatting guidelines for more information.

Published 27 July 2016

Is it wrong to type spaces before and after a dash?

The appropriateness of spaces before and after a dash depends on various considerations: the typeface used, the medium (print, online), and so on.

In the MLA Handbook, we show no space before and after dashes because that’s the standard format used by publishers in the United States. A student who follows that model will be sure of producing professional-looking work, at least as far as the dashes are concerned.

There is sometimes a good argument for spaces, however. In some typefaces, the dash is so short that it does not provide adequate separation by itself. The designers of such typefaces intend users to add spaces.

Online environments like e-mail and Web pages sometimes do not permit lines to break before or after dashes. In such a situation, when a long sequence like “perspective—considering” does not fit at the end of a line of text, it will be carried over to the start of the next line, leaving a hole at the end of the previous line. Typing spaces before and after dashes is a way to avoid this.

These comments refer to projects in which the decision on spacing is up to you. In a classroom, the teacher usually has the final say on the formatting of assignments.

Published 29 February 2016

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