Commas aren’t some piece of punctuation meant to aggravate you. They can actually be used as rhetorical tools, meaning that you can use them to emphasize information. Commas can also help you add clarity to your writing so you don’t confuse your readers.
Commas separate, introduce, and show information. While comma rules aren’t completely rigid, there are some comma guidelines that you should be familiar with. Once you get to know these, you can begin to mess with them to suit your rhetorical needs.
HOW TO USE COMMAS
There are four cases when you should really use commas:
1.To separate clauses. Commas often separate an independent clause (a phrase that can stand alone as a sentence) from a dependent clause (a phrase that can’t stand alone).
When the robot was first built,he didn’t have any legs.
2. To separate parenthetical phrases. Parenthetical phrases interrupt other phrases or clauses, and contain extra information that could be removed from the sentence without changing the sentence’s core meaning.
The robot,which had no name, was created to guard and protect the Writing Center.
3. To separate introductory phrases.An introductory phrase is a phrase at the beginning of the sentence (usually a dependent clause) that provides background information for the main sentence.
While the robot was painted silver, he had a heart of gold.
4. To balance two independent clauses (with a coordinating conjunction). Two independent clauses can be two separate sentences, or can be combined into one sentence using a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so).
Students loved the robot,for he was kind and generous.
The robot enjoyed getting to see the students,but he was always sad when the Writing Center closed for the night.
The tutors realized how lonely the robot was becoming,so they built him a robot dog to keep him company.
HOW TO NOT USE COMMAS
Even though there is a lot of flexibility in what ways you can use commas, there are also cases when you should avoid using them:
1. Don’t separate the verb from its subject or its object.
The robot, danced when no one was looking. → The robot danced when no one was looking. (The robot is the subject, danced is the verb.)
The robot walked, his robot dog. → The robot walked his robot dog. (Walked is the verb, his robot dog is the object.)
2. Don’t use a comma between an adjective and a noun.
The cardboard, robot was always eager to help students with their writing. → The cardboard robot was always eager to help students with their writing.
3. Don’t use a comma before the first item in a series.
The robot likes, gummy worms, break dancing, and paper cranes. → The robot likes gummy worms, break dancing, and paper cranes.
4.Don’t use a comma after a coordinating conjunction.
The robot was large yet, gentle. → The robot was large yet gentle. *OR* The robot was large, yet gentle.
Note: You can use a comma before the coordinating conjunction if you want, but you don’t have to, since the two clauses are not independent clauses. Whether or not you put a comma before the coordinating conjunction in cases like this will depend on how much you want to emphasize the piece after the conjunction.
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
We hope this rundown of good and not-so-good uses of commas is helpful for you. If you have any more punctuation questions, feel free to stop by the Writing Center or schedule an appointment here.
We also hope that you’ll stop by and check out our new giant cardboard robot—he still needs a name and we would love your input!
—Annie and Sarah, peer tutors
My So-Called Subjunctive: Was vs. Were
Verbs in the English language can be infinitely tricky, what with our multitude of irregulars and often misleading vowel combinations, but they can also be infinitely beautiful, conjugated in ways that convey shades of subtle meaning.
Just like rebellious teenagers, verbs can contain a lot of emotion and like to spend time pondering their place and purpose in the universe. The English subjunctive is a “mood” which communicates doubt, hope, wishfulness, or the hypothetical.
One of the most distinct forms of the subjunctive mood is in the difference between “was” and “were.”
This is Angela. She is in love with Jordan Catalano, but he does not know she exists. If she writes in her diary, which would be the correct way to describe her love for him?
“I wish I was dating Jordan Catalano,” vs. “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.”
Here, the correct choice would be “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela is not actually dating him, but merely wishes to be, were expresses the hypothetical nature of the situation – the doubt that it is a thing that actually exists.
“If I was dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy,” vs. “If I were dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy.”
Again, Angela is not actually dating Jordan Catalano, but is expressing the wish/doubt/uncertainty inherent in the statement. Imagine it this way: if we take out the “if” from the sentence, it leaves us with “I was dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela had never been dating him, the implication of was on its own is incorrect, and were is necessary instead.
However, was also has a specific purpose. Examine the following:
“If Angela was in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know,” vs. “If Angela were in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know.”
Because Angela actually is in love with Jordan– because the sentence is expressing something that is hypothetically true or implied to be hypothetically true, was would be appropriate. The use of were in the second example implies to the listener that the fact of Angela being in love with Jordan is doubtful, uncertain, or unlikely to become a possibility.
Although its conscious use has fallen somewhat out of fashion, the use of were instead of was still communicates an important element of the unknown and uncertain… much like the fate of Angela’s heart.
—Andrea, peer tutor
Who vs. Whom
Has this ever happened to you?
You: “Hi. May I ask who I’m talking to?”
Some grammar-prude: “Uh, I think you mean ‘To whom am I speaking.’”
You: “Oh. Nevermind, I really don’t want to talk to you anymore. Bye.”
If you’re like me, then you hate when people correct your spoken grammar. But in formal writing, knowing how to employ proper grammar can mean the difference between just getting your point across and really driving it home. Taking the time to learn and follow the rules shows your audience that you care about your writing, and they will take you more seriously because of it. So even though the word “whom” has pretty much dropped out of spoken English entirely, it is still important to learn when to use it, if for no other reason than to impress people with your sophisticated grammar.
The difference between “who” and “whom” is actually pretty simple. “Who” is a pronoun in subject-case. “Whom” is the same pronoun in object-case. If the word appears as the subject of a clause (i.e. the thing that’s doing an action), you want to stick with “who.” If, on the other hand, the word appears as the object of a clause (i.e. the thing that’s receiving the action), you want to use “whom.”
Let’s look at some examples.
Example 1: Who wants to make me a sandwich?
Here, “Who” is the subject of the verb “wants.” The person represented by the pronoun is the person doing the wanting.
Example 2: The person who answers that question is clearly just trying to impress me with his or her superior sandwich-making prowess.
Again, “who” is acting as a subject, this time to the subordinate clause “who answers that question.”
Example 3: Whom should I pick to make me a sandwich?
In this sentence, “Whom” functions as an object, because “I” am the one performing the action of picking. “Whom” receives the action.
Example 4: The person whom I chose to make me a sandwich forgot the mayo, and thus will never make me a sandwich again.
In this example, “whom” is the object of the verb “chose.” Note that in this sentence, we could opt to drop “whom” completely, and the sentence would still be correct.
If you get stuck, ask yourself if the person represented by the pronoun is doing something. If so, you are correct in using “who.” If, however, the person represented by the pronoun is being acted upon, you want to use “whom.” “Who” is active; “whom” is not.
Remember: Who likes do to things. Whom likes having things done to him.
For an easy way to remember the difference, take a look at this video:
Casey, peer tutor
Dangling Modifiers: Who knew grammar could be so hilarious?
Dangling modifiers appear in our everyday speech, in the media, and even on street signs:
Grammatically, this sign is warning drivers that pedestrians are slippery when wet. I wouldn’t really say that pedestrians become slippery when wet, but even if they do, the slipperiness of a pedestrian does not merit the existence of a cautionary road sign. However, the intent of the sign is to advise drivers to watch out for pedestrians because the roads can be slippery when wet and thus the likelihood of hitting a pedestrian is much greater.
The confusion and hilarity of this sign comes as a result of a dangling modifier. A dangling modifier fails to refer logically to any word in the sentence. In this case, “slippery when wet” does not logically refer to pedestrians or any other word on the sign. The good thing about dangling modifiers is that they are easy to fix once you have discovered them. The sign could easily read…
Caution – Road Slippery When Wet
Watch For Pedestrians
Watch For Pedestrians When Road Is Wet
If The Road Is Wet, You Are More Likely To Hit A Pedestrian, So Pay Attention
or any number of logical phrases. In order for these other options to work, I had to directly state what was slippery or wet by adding the word “road”.
What to remember in order to avoid or fix a dangling modifier:
• Name the person, place, or thing that your modifier (the descriptive phrase, such as “slippery when wet”) is referring to.
Let’s take a look at another hilarious example.
As the illustration shows, the sentence “Waiting for the bus, the time went by slowly,” means that the time is what is actually waiting for the bus because the sentence doesn’t explicitly say who is waiting for the bus. This can be fixed by saying
As I waited for the bus, the time went by slowly.
Waiting for the bus, I felt like the time went slowly.
Both of these sentences show who was waiting for the bus and that the only thing time does is go slowly.
Again we have a dangling modifier situation illustrated in the sentence above. It causes confusion because the sentence does not state who is walking down the moonlit path. Thus a simple solution to the sentence is to say
The bushes were frightening to me as I walked down the moonlit path.
I was frightened by the bushes as I walked down the moonlit path.
Now that we have a clear subject and know who was walking down the path, the sentence makes sense and the modifier logically refers to the appropriate word.
Even though we have had some good laughs at the expense of dangling modifiers (if you haven’t had enough laughs here are some more), remember to watch out for dangling modifiers in your own writing so that you don’t become the subject of laughter.
Sarah, peer tutor
Don’t Be Scared of Your Paper!
It’s not yet Halloween and television channels are already having marathons of horror movies! That’s right. There is now no place to hide from Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, or those monsters that go bump in the night.
He’s right behind you! Lady! Hello! Crap, she’s dead…
That means you’ll be more inclined to turn off the TV and focus on that essay, right? No? You’re scared of your paper? You’re scared of its imposing seven-page minimum?
Wait? Your paper turns into a giant monster at night and terrorizes New York City? Ehhh, sorry. Can’t help you there.
Don’t be! It’s okay! We all get scared of our papers sometimes, but that’s why the Writing Center is here to help.
All of us tutors are equipped to handle your every writing fear. Whether it is grammar, your thesis, or prewriting, we are here to help! We even have TONS of handouts you can take with you for your benefit ranging from how to take notes, how to outline, and even how to make an eye-popping resume.
So come visit us in Hill Hall 101 or book an appointment with us at our website.
And if you actually need help surviving a horror movie, we can help you there too.
Don’t run upstairs.
Don’t be the person that always jokes around.
Always call for back-up.
Never split up.
Never go down into the basement.
Actually, speaking of which, my fellow tutor Ben Azat hasn’t come back from putting up flyers in the bottom of Hill Hall. Maybe I should go check it out.
You know that moment when you’re chatting with a group and you mention a word or topic of conversation that you think EVERYONE must be familiar with, only to be met by questioning and confused expressions? (If you have no clue what I’m talking about, then you’re probably giving the computer screen such a look right now. If that’s the case, just smile, nod, and keep reading. Eventually, I may decide to start making sense.) I’ve recently been bringing up the subject of one of my favorite sentences, and it has inspired quite a few confused looks (and a couple more “What-in-the-world-are-you-saying-I’m-very-concerned-for-your-sanity-at-this-moment” stares). Thus, I’ve decided to raise awareness of what is in my not-so-humble opinion one of the strangest, and therefore coolest, sentences in the English language.
Its only downside, as you might imagine, is that there just aren’t that many opportunities to bring up buffalo in casual conversation (but that doesn’t keep me from trying).
So let’s talk about this sentence:
First, it’s important to recognize that all eight of the above words do not have the same meaning. (If they did, this could never function as a complete sentence.)
In fact, this sentence relies on homonyms (words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but mean different things e.g. stalk (of a plant) and stalk (as in to follow a person to a creepy degree)) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, but mean different things e.g. carat (used for measuring the weight of pearls, as in your girlfriend probably would like lots of these on Valentine’s Day) and carrot (your girlfriend would probably not be quite as thrilled if this were her Valentine’s gift and the Writing Center by no means recommends the giving of vegetables as romantic holiday presents.)
Anyway, back to the sentence:
Buffalo refers to a location. More particularly, Buffalo, New York. (This one is the easiest to recognize due to its capitalization.)
A second use of the word buffalo, as defined by www.dictionary.com is a verb meaning “5. to puzzle or baffle; confuse; mystify: He was buffaloed by the problem. 6. to impress or intimidate by a display of power, importance, etc.: The older boys buffaloed him.”
The third type of buffalo is, of course, the animal itself. The word “buffalo” may look singular, but it can also be used as a plural. In the above sentence, “buffalo” the noun always means multiple buffalo. See the picture below.
Picture courtesy of www.wildnatureimages.com
Okay, so in light of this, let’s look at the sentence in parts.
Part One: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
The first two words “Buffalo buffalo,” go together. The first “Buffalo” is an adjective that indicates place, and the second word is the noun, meaning the animal.
Try substituting a different place, like Westminster for the place and you get “Westminster buffalo.” Make more sense?
So, if the sentence said, “Buffalo buffalo chase Westminster squirrels,” another way of phrasing it would be that “the buffalo of Buffalo, New York chase Westminster squirrels.” Got it? Great! Moving along!
Part Two: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
The next set of three words are, in this order, the place of Buffalo, New York, followed by the name of the animal, followed by the verb meaning to bully or confuse. Therefore, Buffalo buffalo buffalo is the same thing as saying that the buffalo of Buffalo, New York bully. (Bully who, you might ask? Check out part three below!)
Part Three: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Now let’s put together what we know. You may need to go over it a few times before it really sinks in, but here we go!
For ease of understanding, I’m going to substitute Westminster for Buffalo, New York and “bully” for “buffalo” the verb. The sentence now becomes “Westminster buffalo Westminster buffalo bully…”
Although the word “that” is not necessary for the sentence to work grammatically, it can be added to make it clearer. “Westminster buffalo [that] Westminster buffalo bully…”
Notice that the words from part two (the third, fourth, and fifth words of the original sentence) aren’t actually doing any action in the sentence. They’re just there to describe the buffalo of part one (the first and second words). Think of them as two separate groups of buffalo.
Person 1: Which buffalo are you talking about?
Person 2: You know, Buffalo buffalo.
Person 1: Oh, the Buffalo buffalo that like to play hopscotch?
Person 2: Of course not! I meant the Buffalo buffalo [that other] Buffalo buffalo bully!
Person 1: Poor guys! cyberbullying is such a shame…
Catching on? This may take a little practice when applying it to the above sentence. Don’t give up!
Part Four: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Note that the third, fourth, and fifth words are not included in this part. That’s because they’re functioning as an adjective clause! They help to describe the subject, but aren’t really necessary for the sentence to work, so we’ll put them on the back burner for now.
So we’ve got the first part down. Buffalo buffalo means buffalo (the animal) from Buffalo (the place).
The final three words are the verb “to bully”, the place of Buffalo, and the animal buffalo.
Putting those parts together, the buffalo of Buffalo, New York [skipping over the adjective clause] bully the [other] buffalo of Buffalo, New York.
That’s right, folks. While other cities have gang wars, Buffalo, New York has THREE conflicting groups of buffalo. And we thought the number of squirrels running around campus was bad…
Part Five: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
Woo-hoo! You made it this far! Now just bring all the pieces together!
Just to add a new twist, try substituting the verb “stalk” for “buffalo” (the verb) and the noun “stalker” for “buffalo” (the noun):
Buffalo stalkers Buffalo stalkers stalk stalk Buffalo stalkers.
The first stalkers mentioned are both being stalked, and doing the stalking. (Creepy, right?)
And the grand finale is:
Buffalo buffalo (the buffalo from Buffalo, New York) Buffalo buffalo buffalo (that are bullied by other buffalo of Buffalo New York) buffalo Buffalo buffalo (bully other buffalo of Buffalo, New York).