How to Avoid Common Mistakes With Commas

June 28, 2013

mistakes-with-commasMany people fancy themselves as a writer. Indeed, there is a saying that ‘everyone has a novel inside them’, and while this may be true, in reality few could actually write it.

Even if they don’t harbour any literary aspirations, many people in the technology sector are still expected to produce reports, papers and other concise and clear written materials for management, colleagues, customers and prospects. A good command of grammar, including knowledge of everyday writing errors to avoid, is clearly useful.

One of the most common mistakes involves correct comma usage. Bill Bryson, the best-selling author and English language expert, states in his essential reference ‘Troublesome Words’ that the comma is ‘the most abused of punctuation marks’.

And he’s right – not least when it is notable by its absence. For instance, commas are frequently missed after the introductory element (word, phrase or clause) of a sentence. Readers normally require a pause here, not to draw breath, but to give the sentence better comprehension, as in the examples below.

Incorrect: Before the deadline passed the team tried in vain to get finished
Correct: Before the deadline passed, the team tried in vain to get finished

Incorrect: However the team got there in the end
Correct: However, the team got there in the end

A missing comma in a compound sentence is another typical writing error. A compound sentence comprises two or more parts, each of which in theory could be a separate sentence. When the parts are connected using words such as but, so, yet, or for, a comma should be deployed to provide a pause between the elements.

Incorrect: The team members worked at pace and felt confident of success but with the clock ticking their efforts were always doomed to failure.
Correct: The team members worked at pace and felt confident of success, but with the clock ticking their efforts were always doomed to failure.

Incorrect: The job wasn’t finished yet the team members were tired and needed rest
Correct: The job wasn’t finished, yet the team members were tired and needed rest

Another common failure is missing commas in non-restrictive elements. These are words, phrases or clauses that are not essential to the basic meaning of the sentence. See below.

Incorrect: John Smith the company’s managing director was first to speak
Correct: John Smith, the company’s managing director, was first to speak

Incorrect: The new sales manager who joined from a rival firm has hit the ground running
Correct: The new sales manager, who joined from a rival firm, has hit the ground running

Of course the comma is just one of many tricky punctuation marks that people tend to abuse. And if you think comma usage is plagued with difficulty, just wait till we get onto hyphens!


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