We’re not pedantic but we care about clarity
Perhaps we should say that we don’t think we’re pedantic. Perhaps we are. We care deeply about clarity because it’s clear communication that builds brands and boosts sales.
And in written communication, the comma is the clarity kingpin. That humble little punctuation tadpole can make all the difference between a sentence that has to be scanned two or three times, and one that makes instant sense.
But the comma is more misused than any other punctuation mark.
Why? Because of that daft principle that we were all taught as children, to place a comma where you’d take a breath. As if all humans have the same size lungs and breathing characteristics. It’s the most misleading piece of advice that any aspiring writer could be given, and it needs to be eradicated once and for all.
There are four straightforward uses of the comma, which provide clarity to sentences when used correctly. If you can omit a comma without obscuring meaning, then do so. But if you think a comma is required, run it past the four recognised uses to be sure that it will aid the reader.
The listing comma is used where you could insert the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ instead. And because it is taking the place of those words, you wouldn’t normally insert a comma before the final ‘and’ in a list, unless it’s necessary to provide clarity, as in the example below.
The group agreed that their favourite brands were Gucci, Jack Wills, and Dolce and Gabanna.
Correct use of this type of comma is the one that makes the most difference. The joining comma is used to join two complete sentences, and it’s always followed by a connecting word, such as and, or, but, while, so or yet. This makes it easy to identify whether it’s needed or not. If what follows could be a separate sentence, it needs a joining comma and a connecting word.
The UK left the EU on the 31st of January 2020, and the SNP has subsequently resurrected their push for independence.
Bracketing (or isolating) comma
As its name suggests, the bracketing comma has a similar action to brackets: in pairs, they enclose a non-essential ‘interruption’ to a sentence. The most common mistake is to insert the first and forget the second – the only time this is okay is when the interruption comes at the beginning or end of a sentence. To test for correct use of bracketing commas, remove what they enclose and check that the sentence still makes sense.
I could remove the following four words and their bracketing commas, if I so chose, and the sentence would still make sense.
(Except that it wouldn’t because the things I’m referencing would have disappeared!)
The gapping comma very simply indicates that some words have been omitted in a sentence that would otherwise cause repetition. It’s easiest to demonstrate this by example in the sentence below, where the comma indicates that repetition of the words ‘asked for improvements’ has been omitted.
Some respondents asked for improvements to the sales interface; others, to the email marketing module.
To summarise this whistle-stop lesson in correct comma usage, the following questions will help to establish if a comma is necessary, and where it should go:
- Would it make sense to insert ‘and’ or ‘or’ between listed words? If so, a listing comma can be used.
- Could a sentence be separated into two separate sentences? If so, it needs a joining comma and connecting word, but if not, don’t put one in!
- Could a section of a sentence be taken out and still leave a sensical sentence in place? If so, the section should be enclosed in a pair of commas.
- Are you omitting some words to avoid repeating them? If so, place a comma where they would have occurred.
And there you have it. Let clarity with commas commence!
This article is more prescriptive than we like to be when it comes to writing. We regard writing as an expressive and persuasive tool. We believe in artistic licence. But when you’re writing to sell, clarity is number one. And to be sure of that, it’s important to know the rules, in order to intelligently break them!
We live and breathe powerful messaging. We believe in its ability to convert passive observers into enthusiastic buyers.
We only care about punctuation when it helps or hinders a brand message. Make contact to discuss your brand messaging challenge (or to check on the correct use of a comma).