For other uses, see Comma (disambiguation).
The comma ( , ) is a punctuation mark. It has the same shape as a chicken leg or single closing quotation mark in many typefaces, but it differs from them in being placed on the baseline of the text. Some typefaces render it as a small line, slightly curved or straight but inclined from the vertical, or with the appearance of a small, filled-in number 9. It is used to separate parts of a sentence (linguistics) such as clauses, and lists of three or more things.
The comma is used in many contexts and languages, principally for separating things. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comma comes directly from the Greek komma (κόμμα), which means something cut off or a short clause.
- 1 History
- 2 Uses
- 3 Differences between American and British usage
- 4 Computing
- 5 Diacritical usage
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
In the 3rd century BC, Aristophanes of Byzantium invented a system of single dots (distinctiones) that separated verses (colometry) and indicated the amount of breath needed to complete each fragment of text when reading aloud. The different lengths were signified by a dot at the bottom, middle, or top of the line. For a short passage (a komma), a media distinctio dot was placed mid-level ( · ). This is the origin of the concept of a comma, though the name came to be used for the mark itself instead of the clause it separated.
The mark used today is descended from a diagonal slash, or virgula suspensiva ( / ), used from the 13th to 17th centuries to represent a pause, notably by Aldus Manutius.
In general, the comma is used where ambiguity might otherwise arise, to indicate an interpretation of the text such that the words immediately before and after the comma are less closely or exclusively linked in the associated grammatical structure than they might be otherwise. The comma may be used to perform a number of functions in English writing. It is used in generally similar ways in other languages, particularly European ones, although the rules on comma usage – and their rigidity – vary from language to language.
Commas are used to separate items in lists, as in They own a cat, a dog, two rabbits, and six mice. In English, a comma may or may not be used before the final conjunction (and, or, nor) in a list of more than two elements. A comma used in such a position is called a serial comma or an Oxford or Harvard comma (after the Oxford University Press and Harvard University Press, both prominent advocates of this style). In some cases, use or omission of such a comma may serve to avoid ambiguity:
Use of serial comma disambiguating:
- I spoke to the boys, Sam and Tom. – could be either the boys and Sam and Tom (I spoke to more than three people) or the boys, who are Sam and Tom (I spoke to two people)
- I spoke to the boys, Sam, and Tom. – must be the boys and Sam and Tom (I spoke to more than three people)
Omission of serial comma disambiguating:
- I thank my mother, Anne Smith, and Thomas. – could be either my mother and Anne Smith and Thomas (three people) or my mother, who is Anne Smith, and Thomas (two people)
- I thank my mother, Anne Smith and Thomas. – The writer is thanking three people: the writer's mother and Anne Smith (who is not the writer's mother) and Thomas.
As a rule of thumb, The Guardian Style Guide suggests that straightforward lists (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need a comma before the final "and", but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea.) The Chicago Manual of Style, and other academic writing guides, require the "serial comma": all lists must have a comma before the "and" prefacing the last item in a series.
If the individual items of a list are long, complex, affixed with description, or themselves contain commas, semicolons may be preferred as separators; and sometimes the list may be introduced with a colon.
Separation of clauses
Commas are often used to separate clauses. In English, a comma is generally used to separate a dependent clause from the independent clause if the dependent clause comes first: After I fed the cat, I brushed my clothes. (Compare this with I brushed my clothes after I fed the cat.) A relative clause takes commas if it is non-restrictive, as in I cut down all the trees, which were over six feet tall. (Without the comma, this would mean that only those trees over six feet tall were cut down.)
Some style guides prescribe that two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) must be separated by a comma placed before the conjunction. In the following sentences, where the second clause is independent (because it can stand alone as a sentence), the comma is considered by those guides to be necessary:
- Mary walked to the party, but she was unable to walk home.
- Designer clothes are silly, and I can't afford them anyway.
- Don't push that button, or twelve tons of high explosives will go off right under our feet!
But in the following sentences, where the second clause is dependent (because it cannot stand alone as a sentence), those guides prescribe that the comma be omitted:
- Mary walked to the party but was unable to walk home.
- I think designer clothes are silly and can't afford them anyway.
- Don't push that button or set off the twelve tons of high explosives sitting right under our feet.
However, the comma may be omitted if the second independent clause is very short, typically when the second independent clause is an imperative. In the following sentences, it is sometimes considered acceptable to omit the comma, even though the second clause is independent:
- Sit down and shut up.
- Run to the end of the diving board and jump.
- Come over here and kiss me.
In some languages, such as German and Polish, stricter rules apply on comma usage between clauses, with dependent clauses always being set off with commas, and commas being generally proscribed before certain coordinating conjunctions.
The joining of two independent sentences with a comma and no conjunction (as in "It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark.") is known as a comma splice and is often considered an error in English; in most cases a semicolon should be used instead. A comma splice should not be confused, though, with asyndeton, a literary device used for a specific effect in which coordinating conjunctions are purposely omitted.
Commas are always used to set off certain adverbs, including however, in fact, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore, and still.
- Therefore, a comma would be appropriate in this sentence.
- Nevertheless, I will not use one.
If these adverbs appear in the middle of a sentence, they are enclosed in commas.
- In this sentence, furthermore, commas would also be called for.
Using commas to offset certain adverbs is optional, including then, so, yet, instead, and too (meaning also).
- So, that's it for this rule. or
- So that's it for this rule.
- A comma would be appropriate in this sentence, too. or
- A comma would be appropriate in this sentence too.
Commas are often used to enclose parenthetical words and phrases within a sentence (i.e., information that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence). Such phrases are both preceded and followed by a comma, unless that would result in a doubling of punctuation marks, or the parenthetical is at the start or end of the sentence. The following are examples of types of parenthetical phrases:
- Introductory phrase: Once upon a time, my father ate a muffin.
- Interjection: My father ate the muffin, gosh darn it!
- Aside: My father, if you don’t mind me telling you this, ate the muffin.
- Appositive: My father, a jaded and bitter man, ate the muffin.
- Absolute phrase: My father, his eyes flashing with rage, ate the muffin.
- Free modifier: My father, chewing with unbridled fury, ate the muffin.
- Resumptive modifier: My father ate the muffin, a muffin which no man had yet chewed.
- Summative modifier: My father ate the muffin, a feat which no man had attempted.
A comma is used to separate coordinate adjectives; that is, adjectives that directly and equally modify the following noun. Adjectives are considered coordinate if the meaning would be the same if their order were reversed or if and were placed between them. For example:
- The dull, incessant droning but the cute little cottage.
- The devious lazy red frog suggests there are lazy red frogs (one of which is devious), while the devious, lazy red frog does not carry this connotation.
A comma is used to set off quoted material that is the grammatical object of an active verb of speaking or writing, as in Mr. Kershner says, "You should know how to use a comma." Quotations that follow and support an assertion should be set off by a colon rather than a comma.
Month, day, year
When a date is written as a month followed by a day followed by a year, a comma separates the day from the year: December 19, 1941. This style is common in American English. The comma is necessary because of the otherwise confusing consecutive numbers, compare December 19 1941. Additionally, most style manuals, including The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, recommend that the year be treated as a parenthetical, requiring a second comma after it: "Feb. 14, 1987, was the target date."
If just month and year are given, no commas are used: "Her daughter April may return in June 2009 for the reunion."
Day month year
When the day precedes the month, the month name separates the numeric day and year, so commas are not necessary to separate them: "On 19 December 1941 the Raid on Alexandria was carried out by Italian manned torpedoes."
In geographical names
Commas are used to separate parts of geographical references, such as city and state (Dallas, Texas) or city and country (Kampala, Uganda). Additionally, most style manuals, including The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, recommend that the second element be treated as a parenthetical, requiring a second comma after: "The plane landed in Kampala, Uganda, that evening."
The United States Postal Service and Royal Mail recommend writing addresses without any punctuation.
In numbersMain article: Decimal mark
In representing large numbers, English texts usually use commas to separate each group of three digits. This is almost always done for numbers of six or more digits, and often for five or four digits. However, in much of Europe, Southern Africa and Latin America full stops are used instead; the comma is used as a decimal separator, equivalent to the use in English of the decimal point. In addition, the comma may not be used for this purpose at all in some number systems, e.g. the SI writing style; a space may be used to separate groups of three digits instead.
Commas are used when writing names that are presented surname first: Smith, John. They are also used before many titles that follow a name: John Smith, Ph.D.
"The big final rule for the comma is one that you won't find in any books by grammarians ... don't use commas like a stupid person."Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.
Commas may be used to indicate that a word has been omitted, as in The cat was white; the dog, brown. (Here the comma replaces was.)
Commas are placed before, after, or around a noun or pronoun used independently in speaking to some person, place or thing:
- I hope, John, that you will read this.
Differences between American and British usage
The comma and the quotation mark pairing can be used in several ways. In American English, the comma is commonly included inside a quotation, regardless of whether the comma is part of the original quotation. For example:
- My mother gave me the nickname "Johnny Boy," which really made me angry.
However, in British English, punctuation is only placed within quotation marks if it is part of what is being quoted or referred to. Thus:
- My mother gave me the nickname "Johnny Boy", which really made me angry.
The use of the serial comma is sometimes perceived as an Americanism, but common practice varies in both American and British English. Barbara Child claims that in American English there is a trend toward a decreased use of the comma (Child, 1992, p. 398). This is reinforced by an article by Robert J. Samuelson in Newsweek. Lynne Truss says that this is equally true in the UK, where it has been a slow, steady trend for at least a century:Nowadays… A passage peppered with commas—which in the past would have indicated painstaking and authoritative editorial attention—smacks simply of no backbone. People who put in all the commas betray themselves as moral weaklings with empty lives and out-of-date reference books. (Truss, 2004, p. 97–98)
In his 1963 book "Of Spies and Stratagems", Stanley P. Lovell recalls that, during the Second World War, the British carried the comma over into abbreviations. Specifically, "Special Operations, Executive" was written “S.O.,E.”. Nowadays, even the full stops are frequently discarded.
In the common character encoding systems Unicode and ASCII, character 44 (0x002C) corresponds to the comma symbol.
In many computer languages commas are used to separate arguments to a function, to separate elements in a list and to perform data designation on multiple variables at once.
In the C programming language the comma symbol is an operator which evaluates its first argument (which may have side-effects) and then returns the value of its evaluated second argument. This is useful in for statements and macros.
In Smalltalk, the comma operator is used to concatenate collections, including strings.
The comma-separated values (CSV) format is very commonly used in exchanging text data between database and spreadsheet formats.
The comma is used as a diacritic mark in Romanian under the s (Ș, ș), and under the t (Ț, ț). A cedilla is occasionally used instead of it (notably in the Unicode glyph names), but this is technically incorrect. The symbol d̦ (d with comma below) was used as part of the Romanian transitional alphabet (19th century) to indicate the sounds denoted by the Latin letter z or letters dz, where derived from a Cyrillic ѕ (/dz/). The comma and the cedilla are both derivative of a small cursive z (ʒ) placed below the letter. From this standpoint alone, ș, ț, and d̦ could potentially be regarded as stand-ins for sz, tz, and dz respectively.
In Latvian, the comma is used on the letters ģ, ķ, ļ, ņ, and historically also ŗ, to indicate palatalization. Because the lowercase letter g has a descender, the comma is rotated 180° and placed over the letter. Although their Adobe glyph names are commas, their names in the Unicode Standard are g, k, l, n, and r with a cedilla. They were introduced to the Unicode standard before 1992, and their name cannot be altered. For input Ģ use Alt 290 and Alt 291 sequences, for Ķ use Alt 310 and Alt 311, for Ļ use Alt 315 and Alt 316, for Ņ use Alt 325 and Alt 326.
In the Czech and Slovak languages, the diacritics in the characters ď, ť, and ľ resemble superscript commas, but they are modified carons because they have ascender. Other ascender letters with carons, such as letters ȟ (used in Finnish Romani and Lakota languages) and ǩ (used in Skolt Sami language), did not modify their carons to superscript commas.
- ^ Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 72. ISBN 1-592-40087-6.
- ^ Reading Before Punctuation – Introduction to Latin Literature pamphlet, Haverford College
- ^ A History Of Punctuation
- ^ Manuscript Studies, Medieval and Early Modern – Palaeography: Punctuation glossary
- ^ "Guardian and Observer style guide: O". The Guardian (London). 2008-12-19. http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/o. Retrieved April 1, 2010.
- ^ a b Fowler, H. W.; Burchfield, R. W. (2000). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (Third, revised ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 162. ISBN 0-19-860263-4.
- ^ http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/020204WhenCommaBfAnd.htm
- ^ http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/020204WhenCommaBfAnd.htm
- ^ Garner's Modern American Usage, (Oxford: 2003, p. 655)
- ^ Chicago Manual of Style: "It’s conventional to put a comma after the year. The commas are like parentheses here, so it doesn't make sense to have only one."
- ^ "When a phrase refers to a month, day and year, set off the year with commas... Feb. 14, 1987, was the target date." "Ask the Editor". AP Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/ask_editor.php. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
- ^ Top 5 comma errors
- ^ "Mary traveled to Seattle, Washington, before going on to California.” "Chicago Style Q&A: Commas". The Chicago Manual of Style Online. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/CMS_FAQ/Commas/Commas29.html. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
- ^ "Acme Pens was founded in Padua, Italy, in 2004." "Ask the Editor". AP Stylebook. http://www.apstylebook.com/ask_editor.php. Retrieved 2008-10-29.
- ^ Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed., §5.67.
- ^ Royal Mail: addressing your mail
- ^ Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.
- ^ Truss, Lynn (2004). Eats, Shoot & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books. p. 96. ISBN 1-592-40087-6.
- ^ See, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style
- ^ Robert J. Samuelson (2007-23-2007). "The Sad Fate of the Comma". Newsweek. p. 41.
- This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.
- Barbara Child, Drafting Legal Documents, 2nd Edition, 1992.
- Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Gotham Books (2004), ISBN 1-59240-087-6.
- Commas: They're Not Just for English Majors, Anymore
- English comma rules and exercises
- Major Comma Uses
- Notes on Commas
- Comma guidelines – also helpful for non-native speakers
- Grammar, Punctuation, and Capitalization – a comprehensive online guide by NASA
- The Oxford Comma: A Solution – a satirical suggestion to settle the problem of the Oxford Comma once and for all.
- The Quotta and the Quottiod – another satirical compromise between the American and British traditions relating to quotes and commas.
- The Ten Functions of Commas in English
- Alphabetic diacritics
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