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In this edition of our compelling Grammar Guide, we’ll be looking at the use of the humble comma and how its use can make or break your sentence. Pens at the ready!
Where the comma came from
The earliest incarnation of the comma was around the Third Century BC, when Aristophanes – the librarian at Alexandria – developed a three-part system of dramatic notation to help actors know how much of a breath to take in between reading a manuscript aloud. The name itself comes from the word comma, which means ‘a piece cut off’ in Greek.
Interestingly, when the word became part of the English language in the Sixteenth Century, it actually referred to completely separate group of words rather than the actual ‘tadpole’ symbol we know today – that little gem came from the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder, who used a system of slashes to indicate pauses in text. These slashes gave birth to the petite ‘figure nine’ that we use in modern writing.
What you think you know about the comma
Ask anyone and they’ll probably tell you to use a comma whenever you’d take a breath if reading the text aloud. However – and in spite of what I’ve just explained about the origin of the comma – the ‘take a breath’ rule isn’t strictly true when placing commas. Since the days when people started reading in their heads rather than aloud, commas have acted more as a means of splitting up text into smaller, more digestible chunks. They can also change the meaning of a sentence quite dramatically; the famous example being the description of the panda in the dictionary:
“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
This definition doesn’t suggest that pandas in captivity regularly chow down on some bamboo, whip out a pistol and shoot some zoo staff before fleeing the scene – but the use of the comma in this example could imply so. Too many commas can be confusing, but then too few can be as well. So, how do we use the comma and ensure everyone’s happy?
Putting the comma to good use
You’ll use a comma to indicate an introduction to a statement, such as:
When I was a child, I used to play in the garden.
This format indicates that the main statement (“I used to play in the garden”) took place in a specific time period and situation (“When I was a child”). Commas are also used to join two statements that would otherwise be separated by a full stop. For example:
I’m really good at running, but swimming is much more fun.
Here, the two sentences are linked by a comma and the word ‘but’. This makes sense, as it’s how you would say it in conversation and it links two statements to make a general point. This is also true for sentences with lists. So, if you’re explaining that you enjoy eating, drinking and dancing, as well as meeting up with friends, you’d write:
I love to eat, drink, dance, and meet up with friends.
This rule exists despite the fact that we’re usually taught never to use a comma before a conjunction such as ‘but’ or ‘and’. However, it’s actually grammatically correct to do this if you’re still joining two statements.
A comma is also used to signify a transitional phrase, which joints one sentence to the one following it:
We wanted to stop for dinner at the café. However, we didn’t have time in the end.
You’ll find yourself using a comma in sentences like this with other words such as ‘therefore’, ‘consequently’ and the like.
Having scraped the surface of using the comma, we’ll come back to explore the other ways you can use it in another post. Until then, happy writing!