GrammarPhile Blog

Commas: To use or not to use, that is the question!

Posted by Julie DeSilva   Mar 2, 2010 5:00:00 AM

Have you ever felt like Oscar Wilde? If so, this article can help.  

"I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out."
-Oscar Wilde


Despite the difficulties many writers encounter, and the myriad rules describing their usage, commas have only two basic functions: they either separate or set off. Separating requires only one comma; setting off requires two.

A relative clause that is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the sentence, should not be set off by commas. A nonrestrictive phrase or nonessential element is one that offers extra information but can be omitted without affecting meaning, and should be enclosed in commas, or if at the end of a sentence, preceded by a comma.

  • The woman wearing a red coat is my sister.
  • The report that the committee submitted was well documented.
  • The book I have just finished is due back tomorrow; the others can wait.
  • That is the woman who mistook my coat for hers.
but
  • My sister, wearing a red coat, set off for the city.
  • The report, which was well documented, was submitted to the committee.
  • This book, which I finished last night, is due back tomorrow.
  • The woman, who was extremely embarrassed, returned my coat.

Sources: Gregg Reference Manual and Chicago Manual of Style

Topics: punctuation

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