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Pause for a comma refresher

September 17, 2010|By LISA PREJEAN

If you remotely paid attention in English class, somewhere along the line you probably heard a teacher say, "When in doubt, leave it out."

And if you really paid attention, you will remember that this statement was made in reference to commas. In other words, if you're not sure whether a comma is needed, don't put it in.

Over the last two weeks, I've been concentrating on punctuation with my 10th-grade English class. These bright kids are good writers, but last year I noticed they struggled a bit with punctuation. It seemed like I was constantly inserting or deleting commas in their work.

So what better way to start our grammar lessons this year than in an area where they need help?

(I'm fortunate that they are struggling in such a minor area. Any editor can insert or delete a comma, but if the content is weak, it's much harder to fix.)

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Here are some comma rules we have studied. Perhaps these will be familiar to you:

1. Commas are used to separate words, phrases and subordinate clauses in a series. For English class, your teacher probably taught you to put commas after each item and before the word "and." For example: We bought bananas, cherries, and strawberries in the produce aisle. However, your journalism teacher might have instructed you to leave out the comma before "and." We bought bananas, cherries and strawberries in the produce aisle. Some grammar books have embraced this journalistic tendency. I tell my students I will accept either form.

Just a note about subordinate clauses ... in case you are curious or couldn't remember how to identify them. A subordinate clause has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought. For example: When she walks, when she runs, when she swims, Sandy is always nicely dressed. There are three subordinate clauses in that sentence: "When she walks," "when she runs" and "when she swims."

2. Commas are sometimes used to separate two or more adjectives modifying the same noun. For example: It was a long, hard race. The comma in this sentence could be replaced with "and." It was a long and hard race. But this rule doesn't apply in all cases. For example: Faded, worn blue jeans are comfortable. There is no comma between worn and blue because the words faded and worn are both modifying the expression "blue jeans."

3. Commas are used before and, but, or, nor and for when they join main clauses in a compound sentence. For example: We will go to the store, and then we will take a bike ride. Both of these clauses, "We will go to the store," and "Then we will take a bike ride," are independent. They could stand alone.

Here's how I explain independent clauses to my students: If Sally came up to Sam in the hallway and said, "We will go to the store," he would understand her plans because she is sharing a complete thought with him. However, if she came up and said, "When we go to the store," he would be waiting for what is coming next. What will happen when we go to the store? A dependent clause must be attached to something in order for the thought to be complete.

4. Commas follow each item in a date or address, unless the item is at the end of the sentence. For example: Send mail to her post office box in Frederick, Md., from now on. There are commas after Frederick and Md. Some students will miss one or both of these commas.

I guess they adhere too closely to the doubting-and-leaving-out instruction. It should help that they've studied the rules for commas.

Now my students simply need to follow the rules.

I don't doubt that they will.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes for The Herald-Mail's Family page. E-mail her at lisap@herald-mail.com .

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