Curing the Most Common Disease of Writing: Commaitis 

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Romano Wilmani simply detested any writing.  Coming up with a topic was never a problem, and overall she enjoyed doing research when that was part of the assignment. As for the writing portion, here is where her dislike blossomed: that confusing comma! No matter what she had been taught, no matter how much she tried, each one of her assignments came back with one negative in common: “this comma does not belong here” … “you need a comma here” … “no semicolon here, but rather a comma.”  The problem was also beginning to spill over into Romano’s part-time job as an accounting intern; her supervisor would notice comma mistakes on Romano’s correspondence with clients. How could she use that most powerful of skills, written communication, to advance, to receive good grades, to truly shout, “I am college educated!” if she could not master comma use?  Of course, Romano’s frustration with the comma is quite common: not only is the comma the most-often used punctuation mark, but it also has many rules and exceptions to the rules. Yet as with any writing, anxiety and stress over comma use can be tossed aside with some simple guidelines. 

It’s important to peek over Romano’s shoulder for a look at her latest missive, part of a class assignment on the future of accounting:

It can, easily be seen that no matter, the state in America complex tax rules and new financial guidelines, would dictate a growing need for accountants; a big plus for the profession. However any future accountants no matter the state would need, expert training to understand these rules.  Unfortunately this does not, always happen; sometimes bringing chaos to customers. If new training facilities for accountants, are opened there would be, happily, an improvement in the end user the customer. 

There are two important notes regarding Romano’s paragraph:

  1.  There are many folks – in fact, an overwhelming majority, most likely – who would not find Romano’s commaitis unusual. In fact, many people reading it would simply accept the commas as being correct, especially if they knew she was college educated. Why? The answer is simply that the vast majority of individuals also don’t really know the ins and outs of commas.
  2. It is important to always keep in mind the #1 rule of writing – we write for the reader. Thus, not only a silent read but an oral read is crucial when it comes to comma placement. For one of the biggest comma errors folks make is placing them where they don’t belong, in unnatural pauses in a sentence. A silent read won’t often “hear” these “hey-you-don’t-belong-here” commas, but reading one’s writing aloud will often result in a “that is one weird place for a pause; that comma needs to go!” response.

What Romano did to tame her bout of commaitis was rather simple, yet it works.  She combined PG’s Writing Center’s exhaustive section on comma usage, the information her supervisor gave, and some notes she had from her PG writing professor.  Initially, these were scattered, but Romano made them into a Mini Comma Use Guidebook with which she was so thrilled she posted it in a PG Discussion unit in her Accounting class so all could use it – and eradicate their comma problems.  

Here it is, guaranteed to help anyone suffering from commaitis:

A trip to PG’s Writing  Center allows for a search, and typing in “comma” brings many options.  Romano started with Comma Use Rules, so she could get a good overview of the specifics on comma placement.

  • She learned that a comma can join two independent (essential or restrictive) clauses (each is a group of words that can stand as a sentence) by using a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).  Romano wrote this example so she would not forget it: “Working with an accounting client can be rewarding, but hard work must go in to make sure the accounting client is satisfied.”
  • Romano became aware of how nonrestrictive (non-essential – the same as dependent) clauses that fall in the middle of a sentence (an independent clause) can easily be set off by commas.  She also learned an interesting trick to assure the commas were needed: if the dependent clause were removed the sentence would still make sense.  Again, she wanted a reminder, so this was added:  “The PG Writing Center has excellent tutors, such as Abby and Jose, available via chat and through paper review.” 
  • There was one more “commaitis complexity,” and Romano now understood this: either beginning a sentence with a nonrestrictive clause or ending it with one that is restrictive (nonessential), again sometimes needed a friendly coordinating conjunction to make the connection.  Her examples would make sure she was always reminded how to do this:  “Needing a tutor, a visit to the PG Writing Center would bring about the much-needed writing help” OR “Visiting the PG Writing Center brought that much-needed second pair of eyes, and Tremaine did the job.”
  • Romano deemed the other comma uses rather simple (yet important), such as placing a comma between a series of items (such as, “The mother bought her son one bat, two gloves, and three balls.”) and after introductory words, phrases, or clauses (Romano penned these two examples: “All-in-all, the visit to PG’s Writing Center was a huge success!” and “Buying two Sunday tickets, Romano and her mother looked forward to their next symphonic visit.”).  There were other instances of comma use, and Romano simply bookmarked the Comma Use Rules so she could always get these correct.
  • Romano’s last bit of guidance was mentioned above: do an oral read of all writing before submitting it.  Natural pauses can indicate commas, yet unnatural pauses can hint at where commas don’t belong.

As for that class assignment of Romano’s?  Following her Mini Comma Use Guidebook she rewrote that paragraph (in fact, the entire essay), and this was the result:

It can, easily be seen that no matter, the state in America, complex tax rules and new financial guidelines, would dictate a growing need for accountants, a big plus for the profession. However, any future accountants, no matter the state, would need, expert training to understand these rules.  Unfortunately, this does not, always happen, sometimes bringing chaos to customers. If new training facilities for accountants, are opened there would be, happily, an improvement in the end user, the customer. 

Romano was now one happy and satisfied student and fledgling professional when it came to commas.  Her bout of commaitis was over, and she knew never to return.  Yes, she mused: understanding commas from afar may seem daunting, but a step-by-step approach with the proper guidelines will result in a comma-happy written product every time!

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