The English Learners' Blog

A blog for English learners and their teachers everywhere, initiated in 2010 with the contribution of students from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. More about me on the On-line Profile below. Welcome!

“A crazy little thing called ‘the comma'”

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The Days with No Commas

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are long gone.

However, unfortunate sentences without commas or sentences with commas that have been misplaced still haunt the world of writing

to this day.

I believe people invented commas for a reason – a good one,

as a matter of fact.

This post is meant to redirect your attention to the little details such as commas, that help readers understand the message of our written sentences.

One example, to start with.

Do you see any difference between the two sentences below?

  • Comma: Besides, eating cuisine specialties fulfills the whole journey!
  • No comma: Besides eating cuisine specialties fulfills the whole journey!

  • If you do, let’s try another one.

Are the commas in these sentences in the right position (that is do they help you understand the meaning of the sentences they are in)?

Someone writes:

  • (1a) My room is covered with different scripts and sheets of paper with notes connected to the subject, I’m preparing to.

instead of

  • (1b) “My room is covered with different scripts and sheets of paper with notes connected to the subject, (sic)… and here there are multiple options, such as:
  • I’m preparing for.”
    … I’m preparing myself for.”
    … I’m preparing my notes (etc) for.”

    and so on.

And may continue like this:

  • (2 a) But in fact, I don’t find it disturbing, because each item has its own place on the floor and this, what someone would call a mess, helps me organize my learning time.

Let’s re-read this last sentence, 2a, like this:

  • (2 b) But in fact, I don’t find it disturbing, because each item has its own place on the floor and what someone would call a mess, (sic) helps me organize my learning time.

In sentence 1a the innocent little comma separates an object and its verb.

In sentence 2a it separates the subject from the verb.

NOTA BENE: A comma should never separate either the verb and its object or the subject and its verb in a sentence – in English, at least.

The symbol (sic) means:  so or thus. It is usually written parenthetically to denote that a word, phrase, passage, etc., that may appear strange or incorrect has been written intentionally or has been quoted verbatim: He signed his name as e. e. cummings (sic).

To use  or not to use a comma? Where, when and why?

These seems to be the questions…

If you’ve stumbled upon misplaced commas,

or any other misused punctuation marks,

bring them to the foreground and give the sentences they haunt another chance for survival!

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Filed under: ■ Punctuation Marks, ■ They write... & what they mean is...

21 Responses

  1. Magdalena G. says:

    Some years ago, there was a competition for inventing a sentence (in Polish) that changes meaning depending on where the comma is placed. There were a lot of interesting examples sent, but I particularly remember one where “life depends on the position of comma”. Translated to English, it would look this way:
    Version 1 “Kill him not, save him!”
    Version 2 “Kill him, not save him!”
    Yeah I know, there is quite a difference between putting a comma somewhere or using no commas at all, but pay attention to where exactly you do or don’t place your commas.

    • Alina Alens says:

      Other alternatives:
      Version 1 “I think, it works.”
      Version 2 “I think it works.”
      😉
      I choose version 2, when “it” refers to this crazy little thing called “the comma.”

  2. karol says:

    I always forget about commas etc. especially in sms-es,
    Some times my friends send back a message, and ask if I can explain it.
    Even for me, who wrote it, it is sometimes hard to understand…

    • Alina Alens says:

      You can look at using commas as a kind of writing discipline.
      You can always check their correct placement if you read the message out loud. It’s really something anyone can get used to & something that can save us valuable time and resources – such as your friends’ patience :D.

  3. Pawel D says:

    An innocent comma is also responsible for a serious debate and schism in Christianity. It’s all about this statement when Jesus is crucified between the two thieves (Luke 23:43)
    version one:
    “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise”
    version two:
    “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise”
    The original Greek text does not include punctuation, so the meaning is inconclusive and therefore causes some serious theological issues such as the existence of the purgatory and remains to this day a subject open to discussion.

    • Szymon says:

      I don’t understand, how this sentence, with comma before or after “today” could cause the discussion about the existence of the purgatory. Do they argue, that if it exists, the robber should go there after his death? The purgatory is for receiving a punishment for sins not atoned in this life. But the robber’s penance could be his shameful death.

      • Pawel D says:

        It’s the Protestants who reject the existence of Purgatory. I don’t know enough about their theology to explain either why they use this sentence as one of the arguments or what actually is the definition of Purgatory they reject. It is very probable that their concept of Purgatory may be significantly different than what Catholics are used to. Especially since in Catholicism details about Hell, Purgatory and Heaven have also been changing over the course of history.

      • Szymon H. says:

        @Pawel D
        So, if the Protestants’ definition is different than the Catholics’, both could agree that the Purgatory as defined by Protestants doesn’t exist. 😛

        P.S. I don’t see a “REPLY” button below your comment (maybe WordPress doesn’t accept more degrees of nesting), so I had to write here…

  4. karol says:

    The fact is that there is no debate, all Christians know that since Christ’s death everyone can go to the Paradise.
    Non-Christians like Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, do not believe in the widespread redemption through Christ. (So the thief had to wait.)

  5. Pawel D says:

    You are missing the point here. The problem is not WHETHER he would go to Paradise, but WHEN and WHERE would he go. Version one is widely spread among most Christian groups, even though they have beliefs often contrary to what this statement actually means (and it’s all about this one coma responsible for the placement of the word “today”, which causes so much trouble):

    – Christ didn’t go to Heaven on the same day he died, during the time his body remained in the tomb he was supposed, among other places, to visit Sheol (and especially the Bosom of Abraham). Resurrection happened three days later and he ascended into Heaven another 40 days after that,
    – there isn’t even a consensus inside Christianity on what Paradise in this sentence means, it could be a previously mentioned Bosom of Abraham or an actual Heaven or even a different place,
    – some Christians believe that no one can get to Heaven before Parousia (in English better known as Second Coming of Christ) or believe that they go there unaware, asleep, waiting to be awakened during the Parousia,

    All these and many other beliefs in various Christian groups come from (or are somehow connected with) this one problematic statement, and even inside Roman Catholic Church it is a subject of debate among theologians (there is of course a dogma, but this doesn’t mean that this issue isn’t discussed).

  6. atma says:

    …another example of the truly human condition, the requirements of communication and the intellectual pitfalls of being. language is a way of handing down information, it has rules and many hidden meanings are included in every attempt to use them. the truth of our human salvation through the blood of Christ is communicated by the spirit, which uses spiritual communication…love. time and place are thoughts within the human condition that bring about questions like where and when. they are interesting but unimportant…the truth of God’s love is revealed by the Spirit. on the other hand discussion is a wonderful way to pass the time that we have…here.

  7. Piotr C. says:

    Commas weren’t used in some Elvish languages in Tolkien’s Middle Earth either, which resulted in Gandalf’s problem with understanding a simple sentence like: ”Say ”Friend” and enter.” That sentence in the first Gandalf’s translation meant: ”Speak, friend, and enter,” which is obviously a much less specific description of the actions required to enter the Mines of Moria.

  8. Agnieszka Kow. says:

    Comma, always the comma… and I’ve recently fallen in love with the semicolon. 😉 Really! After our classes about punctuation I’ve realised that it can be very useful also in Polish – it brings a little bit of fresh air into my writing. 😉

    • Szymon H. says:

      For me the best thing about the semicolon is its name. I think it looks strange in texts, especially in Polish. A sentence with a semicolon is definitely too much complicated and anyone who writes it should think about expressing his mind in a simpler way.

      • Alina Alens says:

        Punctuation marks are like the universally recognised traffic signs on public roads.
        Some people have placed them where they are for a reason, and drivers may choose to read & respect them or make (up) new ones.
        The important thing is to first speak the common “traffic” or “road” language. Creativity comes second to this initial knowledge.
        In other words, the signs, as well as the punctuation marks, were made to be used, and whoever uses them well is far from overcomplicated his or her speech – quite on the contrary!

  9. Magdalena G. says:

    I love the semicolon, too. I remember having read somewhere that it is the favourite punctuation mark of secondary school students, because it is stronger than a comma but weaker than a full stop. Another punctuation mark I like is ellipsis.

  10. Łukasz G. says:

    Commas are very important. I pay a lot attention to intonation when someone is giving a speech. Commas, colons and semicolons are the best way to put intonation onto a piece of paper.

    • Justyna French Accent says:

      I agree with you Łukasz. Intonation is very important even in everyday speaking. People who don’t use commas while they talk are hard to understand and tiring to listen to.

      • Mr A says:

        But only if you have to listen to them for a longer time. But, yup, those darn little commas are the things that just make the world go around:)

  11. Laska says:

    We should remember that commas and semicolons are very important in programming languages like C. Fortunately the compiler helps us to put them in the right places 😉

  12. Piotrek says:

    of course while programming in any language you have to use in specific places commas, and there are hard rules. U make a mistake – the code will not be compiled…

    but in normal life: i dont like when people dont use them while chatting… very often u can read the sentence in two completly different ways.. and there cames only misunderstandings..

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