Where Do I Use Commas?
Are you a comma-kaze? Do you use commas like confetti? Don’t use a comma everywhere you would pause when speaking. Check out the rules.
Last week Dale Seiler on Twitter sent me a screenshot of a Garmin ad that had a strange and unnecessary comma in the middle of the tagline. It reads “Today’s record, is tomorrow’s motivation,” and that comma violates one of the hard-and-fast comma rules: never put a comma between a subject and its verb.*
Commas: Are There Firm Rules or Just Guidelines?
Commas have a lot of different uses, and that’s part of what makes them confusing. Another thing that makes them confusing is that some things are hard-and-fast rules—like don’t put a comma between a subject and a verb—and other things are more like guidelines, as Jack Sparrow says of the pirate code in Pirates of the Caribbean.
The “rules” about serial commas are an example of such guidelines. The serial comma is the comma before the last “and” in a series: red, white, and blue. That last comma before the “and” is called a serial comma, Oxford comma, or Harvard comma. Some people say to always use it and other people say to only use it when leaving it out would cause confusion. It’s a style choice.
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Don’t Put a Comma Between a Subject and Its Verb
But the Garmin ad violates a hard-and-fast rule, not a guideline.
My guess is that one of two things is going on. Either the people working on the ad believe you should put a comma anywhere you would pause when you are speaking, or the tagline was originally something like “Today’s record, tomorrow’s motivation”—without the “is,” which would be correct—and then they put in the verb later, and everyone forgot to take out the comma. (I make most of my mistakes when I’ve been rewriting a sentence to death and overlook some preposition or punctuation mark left behind from a previous version, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened with the ad.)
Pauses Do Not Equal Commas
The “put a comma everywhere you’d pause” idea is an unfortunately common myth. You do typically pause when you’re reading a sentence out loud and you come across a comma, but that doesn’t mean that every time you’d pause when you’re speaking, your sentence needs a comma.
The Garmin ad is a perfect example. If I were a radio or TV announcer reading their ad, I’d definitely pause for dramatic effect where they have the comma, but that doesn’t mean you put a comma in the sentence.
People who put commas everywhere they’d pause tend to overuse commas, or as a teacher once said to my step-mother, use commas like confetti. Another person on Twitter named Jon said that he overused commas and his teacher called him a comma-kaze.
I’m not sure where the idea of a pause equaling a comma came from, but don’t believe it. Don’t be a comma-kaze.
An interesting side note is that just like every other part of language, punctuation norms have changed over time too. When I look at old grammar books from the 1800s, one thing that jumps out at me is how many commas writers used back then. (Note the abundance of commas in the prose in this famous 1838 grammar book by Robert Lowth).
Some Appositives Need Commas
What if the Garmin ad originally did have the comma and didn’t have the verb “is”? If it said “Today’s record, tomorrow’s motivation,” why is it right to have a comma?
We’d put a comma between “today’s record” and “tomorrow’s motivation” because “tomorrow’s motivation” is acting like an appositive.
Let’s consider a simpler example to start. Appositives name or rename the noun they follow. If I write, “The car, a Lamborghini, sped away,” “a Lamborghini” is an appositive. It names “the car,” the noun that came right before it.
If the ad said “Today’s record, tomorrow’s motivation,” “tomorrow’s motivation” is an appositive because it’s claiming that today’s record and tomorrow’s motivation are the same thing, just like “the car” and “a Lamborghini” are the same thing.
Appositives can be restrictive or nonrestrictive. When they’re doing this kind of direct renaming, they’re nonrestrictive and take a comma.
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Appositives
Here’s an easy example to help you remember the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives. If I have one sister, and I write “My sister, Meg, is coming to visit,” I use commas to set off my sister’s name because she’s the only one I have—it’s nonrestrictive, it doesn’t change the meaning. It’s a direct renaming of my sister.
But if I have two sisters, then I would have to leave out the commas and write, “My sister Meg is coming to visit.” “Meg” is still an appositive—it’s naming my sister—but it’s a restrictive appositive because it’s changing the meaning, it’s telling you which of my two sisters is coming.
Appositives in Richer Sentences
Many of the examples you’ll find of appositives in grammar books use names like this as examples because it’s an easy, clear way of showing the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives, but now you can see how they work more broadly by considering the Garmin ad.
You’ll often find appositive phrases in fiction too, and now you’ll know why these phrases are set off with a comma. Here are a couple of examples from novels I had sitting on my desk. The first one is from In the Shade of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner:
Finally, when it felt like we’d traveled to the edge of the world, one of the soldiers announced that we’d reached Prey Veng, a province whose name means “endless forest.”
“A province whose name means ‘endless forest’ ” is an appositive because it’s saying what Prey Veng is. It’s a noun phrase that is just telling us in a different way what the noun was that came before the comma.
Here’s another one from the novel Fated by Alyson Nöel:
“But Daire, we’ve been given a chance, an opportunity to help you in a nonclinical, all-natural kind of way, and I feel we have to at least give it a go.”
“An opportunity to help you in a nonclinical, all-natural kind of way” is an appositive in this sentence, and it’s set off by commas. It’s just telling us what the speaker considers a chance to be.
What We Learned
Thanks again to Dale for sending me the screenshot of that Garmin ad. It turned out to be a great lead-in to learn that you shouldn’t use a comma to separate a subject from its verb, that pauses don’t always mean you need a comma, and to dig deeper into appositives and commas.
Two more examples from In the Shade of the Banyan (appositives are italicized).
How disconcerting to think that this was all that was left of Om Bau, just her things, reduced to ashes.
To the right of the pond stood a white stupa, a bell-shaped dome with a long golden spire that rose and tapered off until it blended with the sky.
Comma with Adjectives
Did Oxford Drop the Oxford Comma?
Commas with Participial Phrases
Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas
Dashes, Colons, and Commas
Commas and Direct Address
When to Use a Comma with “Too”
Commas with Restrictive Elements
* After I posted this, it occurred to me that I should be more specific about this comma rule. Something like "Today's record, is tomorrow's motivation," is wrong because the comma separates the subject from its verb; but sometimes you will have commas between a subject and its verb. In fact, appositives could be an example: The tree, a willow, grew in the yard. In that example, there are commas between the subject ("tree") and its verb ("grew"), but they have a function other than just separating the subject and verb.
Stencil Comma image from Shutterstock