Friday, July 18, 2008

(1) Commas

The comma (,) is placed in conventional writing as a marker for grammatical breaks within a sentence; a sentence is traditionally a grammatically complete thought, but many writers create sentences that are grammatically fragments and occasionally writers blend complete thoughts with a comma, resulting in a run-on sentence/comma splice. See (12) and (13) for a more complete discussion of sentence conventions. [EDIT]

Many students and writers are baffled by the seemingly endless list of “rules” for the use of commas. A few points will help if you have trouble with commas:

• When deciding to insert a comma or not, you should not use pausing as a guide. Many associate a reading rule with commas since we are taught early in school to pause slightly when we come to a comma while reading aloud. Converting that reading rule into a guide for inserting commas will often fail you as a writer in academic and scholarly situations.

• Comma use and the length of a sentence do not have any relationship either. In other words, a very long sentence may be drafted without any commas.

• A better “lazy person” guideline than the misleading “pause” rule is to prefer not placing a comma when in doubt. Comma use has decreased over the past century (read a few pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from the mid-nineteenth century and you’ll see) so for comma choices, when in doubt, do without.

Comma use, however, is manageable if you look at a relatively few broad concepts that guide how most writers of English incorporate commas in their writing.

Conventional uses of commas:

(1.L) Use commas to separate elements of a list including three or more within that list. Here, we have a choice that is preferred differently by different conventional guidelines. Place a comma after the first element in the list and continue to use commas to separate elements; however, some guidelines require a comma before the conjunction in the list while other guidelines do not require that comma. Consult the appropriate guidelines when submitting an assignment or work for publication. Nonetheless, be consistent about applying the comma or not throughout your writing.


(List with a series of words)

The American flag incorporates the colors red, white, and blue. Or

The American flag incorporates the colors red, white and blue.

(List with a series of phrases)

People who live in poverty have been shown to consume less healthy diets than people in relative affluence, to conduct less healthy lifestyles (tobacco use, alcohol abuse, sedentary lives), and to visit doctors less often.

The political language, the public discourse, and the mandates of federal and state legislation all speak about and to the “achievement gap” and the need for schools to “close” that “gap.”

(List with a series of clauses)

You should read the explanation carefully, you should brainstorm about how you want to respond, and you should compose an answer that addresses the situation clearly.

(1.UI) Use a comma or pair of commas to set off words, phrases, or clauses that include unneeded information. Information that interrupts the flow of the sentence without actually enhancing the central content of that sentence or information that creates a grammatical shift (such as the use of “but” or “yet”) in the sentence are also both treated the same as information that interrupts, requiring the use of a comma or pair of commas.


Fran’s oldest sister, Emily, works at the high school.*

* [Since “oldest” cannot be made more specific or clearer by adding the name, you use commas, but in this sentence—“Fran’s sister Robbie works at a different high school that her sister Emily”—you do not set off the names with commas since the names are needed to specify between the sisters.]

Ellison, celebrated author of Invisible Man, spoke with a clarity then that must be heard now.

I have been struck, however, by a much more pressing issue than the claimed rise in student dishonesty in their writing.

This lecture came to us from a writer, a man not expert in the field of education.

Schools filled with children in poverty who are failing, disproportionately also children of color, mirror a reality of our society—the socioeconomic stratification of the lives of Americans.

Students complete both formative and summative assessments that are holistic and authentic, but primarily based on texts not discussed in class to avoid students simply repeating what the teacher has stated in class.

(1.CT) When you join complete thoughts (clauses that can stand alone as a grammatical sentence) with conjunctions (“and,” “but,” “yet,” for example), place a comma before that conjunction. If conjunctions join pairs of words, phrases, or clauses, do not precede the conjunction with a comma.


This is politically difficult and challenging, but such a shift must happen first—before schools have any hope of helping students.

All students deserve and need some differentiated instruction based on their demonstrated strengths and needs, and all students deserve daily generative experiences at school that honor their humanity and their potential.

(1.I) Set off introductory words, phrases, and clauses with a comma.


Finally, the paper will offer needed shifts for addressing all students, including children from poverty.

If we judged hospitals and mortuaries as we judge schools, we’d constantly condemn hospitals for making people sick and condemn mortuaries for killing people simply because both institutions happen to house the sick and the deceased.

Yet, when one school coincidentally serves an area of high poverty, we blame that school for low test scores—while celebrating schools in affluent districts for their high test scores.

(1.Qt) Several circumstances with quoting involve the use of commas. Often commas help separate the original text form the quoted text.


[APA documentation]

“I assume you all know that I really have no business attending this sort of conference,” began Ralph Ellison (2003), speaking to educators at Bank Street College of Education in September of 1963.

“Let’s not play these kids cheap; let’s find out what they have,” Ellison countered. “What do they have that is a strength?” (p. 548).

“We do not believe that the inequalities that exist today are the result of intentional actions to hurt children,” Peske and Haycock (2006) explain, but, “The simple truth is that public education cannot fulfill its mission if students growing up in poverty, students of color and low-performing students continue to be disproportionately taught by inexperienced, under-qualified teachers” (p. 15).

[MLA documentation]

“Teaching English is probably the most intimate of all teaching,” proclaimed Lou LaBrant (34), a progressive educator who pursued literacy instruction with a staggering passion for over 65 years.

Atwood adds, “[W]riters tend to adopt their terms of discourse early in their reading and writing lives” (xxvi).

Finally, a few situational uses of commas do exist:


Her birth date is March 11, 1989, exactly three years after her cousin’s birth date.

City, States:

He flew to Iowa City, Iowa, to help work on a reading test.


She paid $256,000 for the painting.

An on-line resource for commas can be found here: