Comma use when unnecessary

We continue our review of comma usage and rules by looking at the error of unnecessary commas. As Lewis Thomas warns, not being careful of comma use can result in a sentence which “becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas” (“Notes on Punctuation”).

While some comma use is a matter of personal preference or style, there are certain places were commas should not be used. The online usage guide Peck’s English Pointers advises in the section “Commas That Clutter” that “a sentence should contain no unnecessary commas for the same reason that a symphony should have no unnecessary pauses.”

Indeed, many writing instructors will tell students to put a comma where they pause or take a breath. But, as Mark S. LeTourneau writes, “We don’t punctuate where we pause in speech when we read aloud; rather we pause where we punctuate” (English Grammar 476).

Some commas do mark pauses, such as commas used to set off non-restrictive elements. But, unlike the 18th century where it was more consistently the norm to use punctuation to transcribe intonation patterns or breath units in speech, today punctuation is believed to be the part of the grammar for writing (LeTourneau 480).

In the nearly twenty years between the lists “Twenty Most Common Errors” (1986) and the “Top Twenty” (2005), the error of unnecessary commas has moved up from number 17 to number 7, perhaps a reflection of the decline in formal instruction in grammar and punctuation of students and of the teachers of students. In addition, in 1986 the unnecessary comma error concerned using commas with restrictive elements (the subject of a future post), while the Top Twenty error #7 contains some half dozen instances of commas coming between core elements in sentences. 

The purpose of punctuation is to identify grammatical units and the boundaries between them, or as Martha Kolln writes, “to give the reader information about the kind of structure that follows” (Rhetorical Grammar 84).

Some identify two types of commas: delimiters, those signaling subordination, as with commas with introductory word groups (post 2), and separators, those signaling coordination, as with serial or Oxford commas (post 1) and commas used in compounds sentences (post 3). For example, in compound sentences, the comma, along with a coordinating conjunction, acts a signal to let “the readers to know that another complete sentence is coming” (Kolln 84).

Commas are unnecessary, and in fact may confuse or obscure meaning, when used between grammatical units or core elements, such as subject and verb, verb and object, verb and subject complement, preposition and object, and verb and modifiers.

Examples of unnecessary commas

  1. unnecessary comma between a subject and verb:

The laptop on the table, is mine.

  1. unnecessary comma between verb and object:

The dog understood at once, what his handler wanted.

  1. unnecessary comma between verb and subject complement:

The only thing the lottery winners wanted was, to live their lives as they had before becoming millionaires.

  1. unnecessary comma between preposition and object:

On her way home from work, she bought a book at, the bookstore.

  1. unnecessary comma between two phrases that modify the same verb:

This social scourge can be seen in urban centers, and in rural outposts.

Another common error of using unnecessary commas occurs when a comma is placed before the first item in a series or after the last:

The developers received passionate pleas and lengthy petitions from, store owners, local residents, and area building managers, to consider traffic patterns.

In the above example, the first and the last commas are not needed, so they are unnecessary.

Commas are not used, and thus are unnecessary, with a restrictive element because it is necessary to the basic meaning of the sentence. On the other hand, a nonrestrictive element is set off by commas because it is adding information which is interesting, but not essential, to the sentence. Distinguishing between restrictive and nonrestrictive elements can be challenging to writers, so we will devote a future post to this topic.

Adding unnecessary commas, ones that are not needed and that come between core elements or grammatical units can confuse your reader and obscure your meaning. Be sure when you use commas that they are needed or necessary.

(References: Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation”; Le Tourneau, English Grammar; Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar. Examples are borrowed from “Top Twenty Errors in Undergraduate Writing,” and “Commas That Clutter,” Peck’s English Pointers.)

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