From my days at school in the UK, the rules of the usage of the comma have been drummed into me. Mistakes were often accompanied with the slap of a ruler designed to make sure the rules stuck.
However, like most rules in English, the exceptions to the rule seem to grow as you get older. Therefore, I now rely on the simple rule that where you would naturally take a pause, is where you should insert a comma.
However, having recently read The Professional Writing Guide by Roslyn Petelin and Marsha Durham (Woodslane Pty Limited, 1992), I realise my simple rule was slightly misguided.
They give a couple of examples where the rule would lead to confusion:
His innate grasp of finance, found him writing for the financial page.
A serious attempt on the part of management to remedy the state of affairs, demonstrates how importantly this is regarded by them.
Notice above that the comma breaks the sense of the sentence, even though you would naturally take a pause if you spoke it aloud.
The authors sensibly argue that we can use a comma to divide introductory information from the main part of the sentence.
So for example:
If you have any questions, please contact us.
It is more than likely that you would not take a pause if you speak it. However, the comma is justified since there is a distinct break in the structure.
Petelin and Durham also give another nice example:
Similarly, in the sentence “Remember, the test is free!”, placing a comma after “Remember” prevents your reader from reading your sentence as if it were structured the same way as “Remember the Alamo!”.
There are a number of other ways that commas are commonly used.
One of the more common is to divide items in a list:
The main companies in the survey were Microsoft, Dell, IBM and Apple.
US usage tends to put a comma after the penultimate item too:
The main companies in the survey were Microsoft, Dell, IBM, and Apple.
This latter use of the comma is known as a serial comma, and there is little consensus over its usage. Indeed, Wikipedia devotes around 2,000 words to the debate (http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma).
The Guardian Style Guide – as good a source as any on appropriate usage – says the following:
a comma before the final “and” in lists: straightforward ones (he ate ham, eggs and chips) do not need one, but sometimes it can help the reader (he ate cereal, kippers, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade, and tea).
It can also be crucial in meaning:
I dedicate this article to my parents, David Beckham and Julia Roberts.
I dedicate this article to my parents, David Beckham, and Julia Roberts.
I leave it to you to decide which is correct!
Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Visit it at www.britishcouncil.org.my or e-mail email@example.com.