“You think using full stops is hard!?” I asked one group of GCSE re-sit students the other day as they grappled with just two simple tips on what to look for when locating the end of a sentence – those being, whenever you can hear a substantial one second pause and / or wherever two main clauses come together – “Wait till you get a load of the rules for using the comma!” Obviously, if we are still struggling with full stops by next term, then the comma is unlikely to get a look in. However, should the long-awaited full stop revolution ever occur, I will boldly venture forth into a whole new set of starter activities featuring this agile little punctuation mark.
So, in a spirit of reckless optimism, I’ve prepared a slimmed down list of essential comma rules (do you know that there are over twenty in total?) and thirty sentences taken from the epic super hero clash referred to above which occurred in Daredevil, issue163. I’ve selected, and sometimes modified, sentences which not only cover all of the comma rules that I wish to focus upon, but which also tell the full story of this rollicking rumble.
If Daredevil isn’t your thing, then you could always adapt a classic text of your own choosing. But for me, Daredevil has many of the elements of great literature: powerful characterisation (no, I don’t just mean the big muscles!), as much conflict as you could possibly wish for in a single sitting, and all served up with a generous helping of the most vivid imagery – much of which, thankfully, has been graphically illustrated for me, thus saving me the bother of having to visualise it for myself. Of course, if you are already a Marvel fan, then your concerns might run in a different direction: “Daredevil versus the Hulk!? What happens after the opening panel???” Well, to put your mind at rest, DD does survive, albeit after a spell of intensive care in City Hospital!
Should you decide to take the Marvel route, but feel the need to justify all of your literary choices by searching for deeper meaning, then you could encourage your students to imagine the much heavier, more bulky full stop as the Hulk of punctuation – massive and imposing … nothing breaks through it – and the nimble, much more versatile comma as the athletic Daredevil himself. However, this might be stretching allegory a bit too far!
Ultimately, I hope to project three of these sentences onto my white board at the start of each lesson and ask my students to identify the relevant comma rules from the slimmed down list which, in this heavily idealised world of super heroes, super villains and near-perfect full stop usage, will have been glued into every exercise book for homework!
This abridged version of the comma rules is as follows:
Rule 1: Only use a comma when absolutely necessary; if in doubt, leave it out. If you think of the sentence as a highway, then unnecessary commas are like bricks in the road. They severely hinder the smooth flow of traffic.
Rule 2: Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word ‘and’ can be inserted between them.
Rule 3: Use commas before or surrounding the name or title of a person directly addressed. You should also use a comma when the inclusion of a name is additional information as opposed to being in the main flow of meaning.
Rule 4: Use commas to embed individual words that interrupt the sentence flow.
Rule 5: Use commas to embed clauses or phrases that interrupt the sentence flow.
Rule 6: Be very careful when using embedding commas in conjunction with words like WHO, WHICH and THAT (relative pronouns). If the information is essential to the reader’s understanding of the subject of the sentence (i.e. the person or thing being referred to), then the information is not additional and thus does not interrupt the sentence flow. In such cases, the information should not be embedded and so the commas are unnecessary.
Rule 7: When starting a sentence with a subordinate (weak) clause, use a comma after it. Conversely, do not use a comma when the sentence starts with a main (strong) clause followed by a subordinate (weak) clause.
Rule 8: Use a comma when beginning sentences with such single word sentence-starters (introductory words) as: ‘However’, ‘Alas’ and ‘Conversely’.
Rule 9: Use a comma when beginning sentences with short phrase sentence-starters (introductory phrases) such as ‘On occasions’, ‘From time to time’, ‘On the other hand’.
Rule 10: Use a comma to demarcate (to separate) clauses if it will help avoid confusion or make the meaning clearer and easier to understand.
Rule 11: Use commas to separate direct speech from narrative.
Rule 12: Use commas to separate items in a list.
Basically, most of the above could be summarised as follows. Use commas:
- when beginning a sentence with anything other than a main clause
- in order to demarcate (separate out) extra / additional information which is not in the main flow of meaning
- in order to separate words, phrases and clauses when it is necessary to make the overall meaning of the sentence clearer for the reader
- A comma splice is an error caused when two sentences are separated with a comma instead of with a full stop.
- A run-on sentence is an error caused by placing two sentences together without any form of punctuation at all.
Thus, as is often the case with tales of mystery and suspense, this final reflection brings me full circle to the point at which I began:
“You think using full stops is hard!? Wait till you get a load of the rules for using the comma!”
Peter Morrisson is a teacher, author and director of animated films. He currently lectures at the Isle of Man College of Further and Higher Education.