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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where Have All The Commas Gone?

(Voice of police dispatcher): “Calling all cars! Calling all cars! Be on the lookout for escaped commas. Last seen after years that follow dates, and after state names that follow cities. Can be recognized by their downward curves. Please recapture and replace immediately. Reward is clarity of meaning.”

We’re talking about a parenthetical comma, which sets off information: “She was born July 20, 1995, and went to school in Springfield, Ill., where she graduated at the top of her eighth-grade class.” The loss of all those commas may not be a crime, but it certainly is a mystery.

The parenthetical comma isn’t an optional comma. It serves two purposes: the first is to set off the year/state from the date, and the second is to set off the year/state from the rest of the sentence. Without it, readers can be momentarily distracted into thinking that the year/state is part of phrase by which it is followed.


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