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Why Commas Matter

Learn how a single comma can change the meaning of your sentence

By
Mignon Fogarty,

Why Commas Matter

While writing Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas I missed an opportunity to explain the difference between a restrictive element and a nonrestrictive element. Silly me! The following sentences mean different things:


    The monks, who were running, jumped aside. (nonrestrictive)

    The monks who were running jumped aside. (restrictive)

It's all about the commas.

When “who were running” is in commas, it's a nonrestrictive element--an aside. It's describing the monks, which means every monk was running. You can leave it out and it doesn't change the core meaning of the sentence.

When “who were running” isn't in commas, it's a restrictive element -- it modifies the noun “monks.” Only some of the monks were running, and it was those running monks who jumped aside. Leaving it out would leave out important information about what happened.

 

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About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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