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Comma sale! Stock up now while you can

Good news for writers!

The advisory below was forwarded from a fellow journalist who thought Mose might find it clever.

Clever? It's invaluable!

The University of Chicago Magazine is pleased to offer its readers unused punctuation for a nominal price, including periods, question marks, exclamation points, hyphens, and mismatched sets of parentheses, brackets, and quotation marks. Limited supply of interrobangs and diacritical marks. Commas available in bulk! Please write to the editor of this magazine for more information. Sorry, no semicolons.

Because a lot of writers and editors don't know how to use a semicolon – and most of the rest don't like to use them – that's not a problem.

But Mose suggests that journalists take advantage of the commas in bulk. If commas are sold in sub-groups, journalists should stock up on three specialty types.

Serial commas: Mose loves the serial comma, even if many writers and editors have been brainwashed to think it's superfluous to place a comma before the coordinating conjunction in a series.

Such thinking has evolved, Mose is certain, from a mis-reading of The Associated Press Stylebook, which suggests that the serial comma is unnecessary “in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. ...” But the serial comma is never grammatically wrong, even when the series involves simple, unmodified items.

But few series are that simple, and most include adjectives or modifying phrases that can taint unintended nouns if the serial comma is omitted. So buy all the serial commas you can afford. And use them.

Appositive commas: A good supply of these will help to avoid a common mistake of omission, which is a result of carelessness and/or ignorance. A big box of appositive commas will ensure the problem isn't a lack of supply.

An appositive is a phrase or word (or name or number) that explains (or means the same thing as) the word it follows. While it adds detail, it is not essential to the grammatical integrity of a sentence.

The missing appositive comma is always the second one, which is needed to let the reader know that the appositive has concluded and the core sentence is resuming. For example:

Joe Smith, vice president of finance for the hospital, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The sentence Joe Smith declined to comment ... is enhanced by an appositive that explains who he is.

A common error occurs with simple appositives. A writer would never miss the second comma when an appositive provides an age: Joe Smith, 42, was arrested Thursday on a charge of embezzlement.

But the appositive comma often is omitted in other uses: The indicted banker will be arraigned in Pittsburg, Kan. before being taken to a federal prison in Topeka. Oops! That sentence needs a comma after Kan., which is a simple appositive that explains which Pittsburg is involved. (Unlike Pennsylvania, Kansas spells it without the -h at the end.)

Comma fault (also known as comma blunder or comma splice): This involves the misuse of a comma when other punctuation is needed (e.g., period, semicolon) – or sometimes the lack of a necessary comma.

A missing comma can result in something your seventh-grade English teacher called a “run-on sentence.” This example came from a political columnist: The guy ain't going anywhere anytime soon and pretty much everybody knows it.

That's two complete sentences (independent clauses) separated by a coordinating conjunction (and) that should be preceded by a comma. The comma fault seems to crop up frequently in direct quotations that are not punctuated properly.

If you find that the University of Chicago magazine has sold all of its commas (which isn't likely, given the lack of demand by too many writers and their editors), then shop elsewhere.

The clarity of your writing demands that you have a good supply – and that you use them.


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