Sunday, October 12, 2008

45. Uncomplicating Commas in a Series

45. Uncomplicating Commas in a Series

Hey, Everyone, and I hope today's been a good day for you. This lesson addresses another rule that people tend to get confused about occasionally, so let's see if we can clear this one up.

Have you ever had trouble with commas? Our language has lots of uses for commas, but we will start with one that shouldn't be too difficult. We'll continue with some of the other ones in the weeks to follow.

What do you know about...commas in a series?

The rule says that we should use commas... AFTER ALL BUT THE LAST ITEM OR ELEMENT IN A SERIES.

Now...first, you need to be sure that you understand the word "series" in this context, so here's the definition:

A series consists of three or more WORDS...PHRASES...or CLAUSES in a sentence.

1. Here's an example of WORDS in a series:

The Columbus County Fair entertained many folks this year with rides, agricultural competitions, and spelling bees among other delightful activities.

Notice in this sentence that there are commas after "rides,"and "competitions", illustrating that these two words are the "items in a series" that demand commas. However, since "bees" is the last item in the series, no comma is needed. So easy, right?

Be sure you pay attention to the idea that these "items" in a series can be more than three and that they can fall anywhere in the sentence...such as in the following...

Whiteville, Tabor City, Chadbourn, Fair Bluff, Lake Waccamaw, and Hallsboro are six towns or communities in North Carolina's third largest county, Columbus.

Commas follow the name of each community or town...but this time there are six "items" in the series, with commas following the first five, but NOT the sixth since, again, we don't put a comma after the last item. Are you with me?

Assuming that you are, we'll move on to the second rule for using items in a series:

2. Commas should also be used with three or more PHRASES in a series. A PHRASE is a group of related words that do not have a subject and verb. We have talked about prepositional phrases before, so just think about that. In prepositional phrases we see things like this: in the country, over the bridge, around the corner, in the cow patch, etc. We also see other types of phrases sometimes in sentences, but the one thing that all have in common is that they do not have a subject and verb. here's an example of PHRASES in a sentence:

Some language experts say that at least five different dialects of English are spoken today in North Carolina: on the Outer Banks, in the central piedmont, in the mountains, by highly educated folks, and by the uneducated.

In this sentence, there are four commas following each location or groups of people and, once more, the final "item" needs no comma--it does, however, need a period since "uneducated" ends the sentence.

And... finally...the third rule about items in a series:

3. Commas should be used with three or more CLAUSES in a series. A CLAUSE is a group of related words with a subject and verb. When this happens, we say we are using CLAUSES in a series in a particular sentence. So...let's see if you're still hanging in there..Check the following example:

Many Southerners believe that everybody has to look out of his own keyhole, that the dinner bell is always in tune, and that a closed mouth gathers no foot.

In this sentence of funny Southern sayings, commas follow "keyhole" and "tune" because both words end their CLAUSES. Again, there's no comma needed after the final "item", but since "foot" ends the sentence, only a period is needed.

Also, note the subjects and verbs in the three different clauses: In the first clause, EVERYBODY is the subject and HAS is the verb. In the second clause, BELL is the subject and IS is the verb, and in the third clause, MOUTH is the subject and GATHERS is the verb.

ALERT! Now I know there are some of you who are wondering why I haven't said that the comma coming before the conjunction (and, but, or) in the series can be omitted. The truth is that this is another one of those language changes that often happens, particularly if a language is in constant use...and you can be sure that's true of English. Yes, it's so. You CAN omit the comma before the conjunction if you like. That's an option nowadays. For English teachers like me, though, it's tough to relax the rule I learned, so I have given you the more "formal" option to use--particularly in Standard English. Nevertheless, either way is fine. Take your choice.

...And so... we come to the end of another lesson. I hope this has helped you if you've had trouble with this rule. There are other comma rules we'll be reviewing--some we most certainly need to get corrected, so stay tuned for more info about commas. Meanwhile, let me know if you have any questions and any ideas for topics we haven't covered. Carpe diem to all with peace, love, and laughter. GG


Anonymous said...

"Some language experts say that at least five different dialects of English is spoken today in North Carolina . . . "

Question: Shouldn't it be "are spoken" instead of "is spoken" since this verb refers to the plural "dialects"?

Grammar Guide said...

EEEEK! How right you are. This is what happens when I get in a hurry. Thank you SO much for keeping me straight! Correction is being made.GG

LazyHTN said...

I have always omitted the comma preceding a conjunction. Great clarification as to the option, though. Would you have used the comma after "option? :-)

LazyHTN said...

Love this!! Glad I found it!

Anonymous said...

I truly enjoy how you write and what you write about! And what do you think about sentence correctors that check grammar online?

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