It’s, a bit, annoying, when people, put unnecessary commas, in sentences.
Let’s eat Tracy!
Commas are generally used to signal the reader in taking quick breaks to breathe before proceeding to the next part of the sentence.
While commas are essential in separating word series, phrases, or clauses, their unnecessary usage makes sentences awkward and confusing to read.
So, how do we know whether or not commas are necessary?
Commas are generally used to separate words, phrases, or conjunctions in series.
Clauses that act as adjectives may or may not require commas too.
Let’s take a look at two of the most divisive issues in comma usage.
- 1 THE OXFORD COMMA
- 2 COMMAS AND ADJECTIVAL CLAUSES
- 3 UNNECESSARY COMMAS: CONCLUSION
THE OXFORD COMMA
What is an Oxford comma?
Commas are necessary when enumerating a series of more than two words in a sentence. But I guess, we do know that already.
In the example above, we could see the reference to three different people’s names written in a list or series.
We understand that a comma is necessary after the first name and that this rule is more or less self-explanatory.
But, how about the latter comma?
Do we really need it after Chris?
The last comma before the coordinating conjunction “and” is also known as the Oxford or serial comma.
The Debate on Oxford Commas
For many years, fiery debates have been occurring between and among experts regarding its usage.
Although some would cringe at its excessive use in writing because of how it reduplicates the function of conjunctions (i.e. and, or, and nor), many would also agree that the Oxford comma is rather necessary when it provides more clarity.
Wait, what? Is Joseph wearing a ridiculous hat? Or, the writer simply doesn’t know the name of the person with the funny hat but knows he’s also an architect?
In the second sentence, it is unclear whether the writer is referring to three, or only two different people.
The sentence could either imply that:
The name of the guy wearing a ridiculous hat is Joseph and he is located somewhere close to Anna.
Three different people are architects. The writer knows the names of the two, they are Joseph and Anna but doesn’t know the name of the third. Therefore, the least that could be done is to describe what he is wearing.
In this case, the removal of the Oxford comma would make the reference to Joseph being the same person wearing a funny-looking hat clearer.
However, with the comma’s presence, we would be prompted to think that the writer is pointing out three separate human beings.
This means that the decision whether or not to use the Oxford comma after the second entity in a serial list could be improved only by means of paraphrasing the sentence or extending it.
If the writer’s intent is to refer to three different people in the scenario, we could say:
Three of those people sitting in the front row are architects. I actually know the name of the two, they are Joseph and Anna. However, I don’t know the name of the third but I am pretty sure that he’s that guy wearing a ridiculous hat.
Now, if the writer is pointing out only two architects but wants to add additional information to one of them, we could state that:
The guy wearing a ridiculous hat is Joseph. He is an architect. The woman beside her is Anna. She is an architect too.
Uh, can we have another example, please?
Not a problem then.
Notice that the sentence may imply that Joseph is a super-talented architect for being a musician at the same time.
However, the sentence could also mean that the celebrant invited two different people to the party:
Joseph who is an architect
Another person who is a musician
Although this would less likely happen, another way to look at it is the implication that the celebrant invited three separate entities to the party:
Another person who is a great architect
Another person who is a musician
The Oxford Comma: A Conclusion
So what can we deduce from the examples mentioned?
First, is of course that the Oxford comma is optional and it is important to be consistent on its usage, should a writer opt to do so.
The second one is to avoid using it if it’s just going to mislead the readers.
Lastly, paraphrasing or extending the sentences further would actually be a better option than mulling over it.
These scenarios lead us to another noteworthy topic which is adjectival clauses.
Wait, did I not use a comma before “which”?
Let’s find out more.
COMMAS AND ADJECTIVAL CLAUSES
What are adjectival clauses?
An adjective is a word or a group of words that describe nouns and pronouns
A clause is a set of words containing a noun and a verb that could function either as a noun, adverb, or adjective in a sentence.
Put simply, adjectival clauses contain both a noun and a verb whose function is to provide more specific information about another noun or pronoun within the same sentence.
Confusing, isn’t it? Well, let’s look at some examples then.
The clauses “who is a famous architect” and “whose name is Joseph Lee” are what we call adjective clauses.
This kind of clause provides more information or description about the main subject of the sentence.
Sometimes, an adjective clause is also called a relative clause.
It is introduced by relative pronouns such as who, when, where, whom, whose, which, and that.
Why aren’t there any commas in the first sentence’s adjective clause?
Why have been they added in the second?
To answer these questions, it is important to decipher the difference between essential and nonessential adjective clauses.
The Essential Adjective Clause
An essential adjective clause provides necessary information about the subject that when taken out, makes a sentence vague or nonsensical.
These clauses do not need commas at all.
The first sentence, “A famous architect whose name is Joseph Lee always wears a ridiculous hat,” contains an adjective clause that is highly important to the meaning of the sentence.
Even though the sentence would still be grammatical, leaving out the essential adjective clause would make the meaning ambiguous because a reader would never know who exactly is being referred to.
For more clarity, here is another example:
The sentence above clearly implies that there are other floor plans in the setting, but Anna wants a specific one that can be found inside the drawer.
Again, if the sentence uses an essential adjective clause, never use a comma.
The Nonessential Adjective Clause
Now, let’s take a closer look at nonessential adjective clauses.
Nonessential adjective clauses are just extra information about the subject used to create emphasis or style.
Contrary to the essential adjective clause, the necessity of this information is arbitrary.
Ergo, its removal would not hurt the sentence intelligibility at all.
I hope you’re still with me.
Here’s one more case.
Notice the unnecessity of the information contained in the adjective clause.
Without it, the fact that my sister works for a reputable architectural firm would not change.
A Conclusion on Adjective Clauses
To wrap this section up, the decision of whether or not to use commas in an adjective clause is mainly dependent on the writer’s discretion.
If the subject needs further information that is highly valuable to the sentence meaning, do not use a comma.
Consequently, if the goal of putting extra details is to add emphasis or infuse creativity, then commas are necessary.
UNNECESSARY COMMAS: CONCLUSION
To recapitulate the contents above, we have discussed two intriguing topics – the Oxford comma and the adjective clause.
If a writer is more comfortable using the Oxford comma, then it is necessary to be consistent with it throughout the entire document.
However, if it creates ambiguity or multiple meanings, then it is best to fix the sentence by paraphrasing.
Moreover, adjective or relative clauses are either essential or nonessential.
When the clause is essential to the main subject of the sentence, a comma is not needed.
On the contrary, separating the adjective clause with commas is necessary when the writer’s intent is to add extra yet nonessential information related to the subject.
To sum, a comma’s purpose is to act as a clarifying tool rather than an ambiguating one.
So, never beat yourself up.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.