A Word of Warning . . . this is a long one, so be sure you have a few extra minutes.
Someone recently asked me, "Which single punctuation mark is most often misused?" I said that it was probably the comma. The second one is the exclamation point, and the next is the dash and along with the dash, the semi-colon (I'll deal with these others in later CTs) .
Now, some of what you are about to read may be a little demanding and laborious. Some of you may even get burned out after the first several paragraphs. So, if you find you are not following this stuff, don't give up: I promise to "lighten" the load later. So, hang in there. Thanks. (Plus, if you take the time to learn this material about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, it will improve your writing skills tremendously.)
Comma sense (not "common" sense)
In her delightfully titled book, Woe is I , Patricia T. O'Conner says,
There's nothing much to punctuating a sentence, really, beyond a little comma sense. Get the commas right, and the rest will fall into place (136).
While I mostly agree with Patricia, i.e., "once you get the commas right, the rest will fall into place," the problem is exactly that: getting the commas right. And, that is not as easy as it sounds.
In fact, in the fantastic book Working with Words (by Brian S. Brooks & James L. Pinson) the authors state:
Knowing when to use commas is probably the most difficult part of learning to punctuate properly (76).
What About Theology?
Of course there is always someone who says, "Why do we need to know all of this? Isn't it better to know theology and the Bible?"
Well of course it is better to know theology and the Bible than to know punctuation. After all, punctuation didn't die for you on the cross. No one has ever been saved from eternal damnation because they knew how to punctuate a sentence with a nonrestrictive clause. So, that is obvious.
However, if you have any plans to communicate the Bible's message or its theology through the medium of writing, then you must know how to write.
I have seen well-meaning people take the Bible's message and theology and turn it into an indiscernible quagmire of bad syntax and grammar.
How Many Saviors Are There?
I have actually seen people write something so poorly that they ended up saying the opposite of what they intended.
Think it can't happen? Try this sentence on for size:
"My savior Jesus Christ is the only savior."
This was a sentence written by a person who was attempting to "do apologetics." For those of you who are "punctuation savvy," you already know what the problem in this sentence is.
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses
A Restrictive Clause is a clause that is necessary to properly understand the sentence.
A Non-restrictive Clause is a clause that is unnecessary to properly understand the sentence and must be set off by commas-lest it make the unnecessary clause appear necessary. See Turabian , 3.72.
Restrictive Clauses ---------- --- ---------------- Nonrestrictive Clauses
necessary information ---------- --- ------------ unnecessary information
essential information ---------- --- ------------- non-essential information
no commas around it ---------- --- ------------- needs commas around it
Example: Providing that Bob has more than one child . . .
Restrictive Clause : Bob's child Cindy bought a new car.
The restrictive (necessary) clause in this sentence is the name "Cindy."
Now, let's say that Bob has four children. If we simply wrote: "Bob's child bought a new car," you would have to ask, "Which one?"
So, the name "Cindy" is a Restrictive Clause. That means that her name, i.e., the restrictive clause, is necessary information to properly understand the sentence.
In fact, the lack of commas before and after the name "Cindy" in this sentence, "Bob's child Cindy bought a new car" says (implies) that Bob has more than one child. Thus, the name "Cindy" is there (without commas) to tell you which of Bob's kids bought the new car.
Now notice that the author of our "savior" sentence did not set off with commas the name of Jesus: "My savior Jesus Christ is the only savior."
Now as strange as it may seem to people who do not know proper punctuation, the lack of commas in this sentence makes this sentence self-defeating. When our author identifies Jesus in his sentence without commas, it means that Jesus is being identified as one particular savior among other saviors.
So, a longer version of this sentence would be something like: "Of all my saviors, my savior Jesus Christ is the only savior." And, if you have "other saviors," then Jesus can't be the only one.
If Jesus is the author's only savior, then there needs to be commas around Jesus' name so as to indicate that.
One more example :
"My wife Sue is going on vacation." In this sentence, I have not put commas around my wife's name. Because there are no commas around her name, it indicates that I have more than one wife. This sentence, as it is written, is saying that the name "Sue" is important for you to know which of my wives is going on vacation.
Now, someone may rebut this and say, "No, it is just telling us what the wife's name is. It is just incidental filler giving more information."
Ah ha! Now we are getting to the next point. If I write the sentence this way, "My wife, Sue, is going on vacation," then her name is just "extra, unnecessary matter." It is simply giving you my wife's name.
But THAT'S THE POINT! That is how powerful the commas are.
Only when you use the commas to set off the clause (in this case one name) does it mean that it is just "extra information." When there are no commas, then it means that it is necessary information, and without it you could not understand the sentence.
Again: Bob has four kids. "Bob's kid is going to college this week." Do you know which one of his four kid's is going to college? Nope. The author has to tell you.
"Bob's kid Mike is going to college this week." Why no commas around "Mike"? Because IT IS NECESSARY information. Without it, you would not know who was going to college.
The commas around the name (or clause) tell you that it is unnecessary information, and you can extract that clause from the sentence and throw it away and it still makes perfect sense.
"Bob's oldest daughter, Kathy, got married last week." Why commas around "Kathy"? Because, Bob only has one oldest daughter. Her name is not important for you to know that his oldest daughter got married. In this case, you can understand the sentence perfectly without the commas. You would not know her name, but that is only "extra" information. You would still know perfectly well that Bob's oldest daughter got married with or without her name in the sentence. The point of the sentence is simply that Bob's oldest daughter got married last week.
Let's put it into a larger context now. This is a conversation about Bob by two co-workers.
Harvey : Say, Frank, why is Bob so depressed this week?
Frank : Oh, haven't you heard? Bob's oldest daughter got married last week and he misses her. She lived at home, and they were very close.
Harvey : What's her name?
Frank : I have no idea.
Note that the name of the oldest daughter is completely unnecessary to understand the sentence. When you have something that is unnecessary and you put it into the sentence just for "extra information," that is called a Nonrestrictive Clause, and you must set it off by commas.
Thus: "Bob's oldest daughter, Kathy, got married last week."
Now, since there is only one savior and his name is Jesus Christ, the original sentence that we discussed above needs commas around his name.
In fact, there are only two reasons to put in a name in this sort of context:
# 1. The name is important to identify which one it is .
Example: "Bob's kid Mike is going to college this week."
Since Bob has four kids, we need the boy's name to know which one is going to college this week.
# 2. The name is extra information and not needed to understand the sentence .
Example: "Bob's oldest daughter, Kathy, got married last week."
So, how many saviors are there? Well, since there is only one, the sentence should be written like this:
"My savior, Jesus Christ, is the only savior." If he is the "only" savior, then his name is not necessary information to identify who he is. But, if you wish to simply give a fuller explanation of who he is, then you do so by adding his name with the obligatory commas there to set off his name.
I know that was probably hard to follow, but that was my original point:
Getting the commas right is not as easy as it sounds.
One BIG Point
Please do not use (nor believe) that old line from grade school when your well-meaning but unhelpful teacher told you that, "You just put a comma wherever you would normally take a breath." This is simply not true. Writing and speaking are two different art forms (and sciences) of communication, and they do not follow the same rules. You cannot convert speech into writing unless you do some heavy editing.
Ok . . . Lightening Things Up as Promised Above
We just covered when to use the comma with restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. And, we have not even touched introductory prepositional phrases, introductory participial phrases, issues of three or more in a series, compound sentences with coordinating conjunctions, and there's more.
But, let me lighten things up a bit as I promised above. I want you to note how sentence meaning can be changed by the commas.
Fun Examples from Woe is I
# 1. Two Commas Point to the Murderer
-- Cora claimed Frank planned the murder.
Who planned the murder? In this sentence, Frank did (or so Cora was claiming).
-- Cora, claimed Frank, planned the murder.
Who planned the murder? In this sentence, Frank is claiming that Cora did.
#2. One Comma--Big Difference
-- Augie quit saying he was looking for another job.
Well, that's good; no one believed Augie anyway. And, how many times did he have to repeat that he was looking for another job? Personally I got sick and tired of hearing it.
-- Augie quit, saying he was looking for another job.
Get the point? This is an entirely different meaning. In this second sentence, Augie quit his job. And, as he did, he said that he was looking for another job.
Isa. 60:2 "See darkness covers, the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples . . ."
What is over the people? Two things are over the people: (1) the earth and (2) thick darkness. But, how can the earth be over the people? It can't. I moved the comma. This is how it should read:
Isa. 60:2 "See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples . . ."
A Series of Three or More
1. Always place a comma after three or more words (or phrases or items) in a series, and before "and" or "or." Turabian , 3.68, explains this well.
Example: "Peter, James, and John were there."
Special Note: The Associated Press style which consists of your newspapers and major magazines do not use a comma after the coordinating conjunction in this particular construction.
AP Example: "Peter, James and John were there." Some students who read this construction in their local newspapers will question the accuracy of our rule, "Always place a comma after three or more words in a series, and before and or or ."
However, AP style is not academic style. Academic term papers, theses, and dissertations are not newspapers. Term papers, theses, and dissertations do not follow AP style; they follow academic style. Once again: When you have a series of three or more elements, these elements must be separated by commas, and a comma must be placed before the coordinating conjunction.
Examples: "I bought bananas, apples, and pears." "Peter, James, and John were with Jesus."
How Much is a Comma Worth?
An interesting story is told about a man who died and left his considerable wealth to his three children. The will read something like this:
"To my three children, Frank, Mike and Sandy, I leave my entire estate to be divided equally among them."
Frank apparently knew a thing or two about commas and he knew that without a comma between the names of his siblings, Frank and Sandy, he stood to inherit 50% of his father's estate. Why?
Most people would think that the estate should be divided as 33.33% to each child. However, without the final comma, the grammatical construction made Mike and Sandy "one benefactor." Because of the lack of the comma, there were only two benefactors: (1) Frank and (2) Mike/Sandy.
So, being the money-hungry slime-ball he was, Frank went to court and demanded half of his father's estate based upon the "exact punctuation" of his father's will.
Interestingly, the deceased man's lawyer testified in court that the man wished for each of his children to get an equal amount, i.e., 33.33%.
The judge called for an expert in the English language who testified that since there was no comma between the last two names, grammatically, the last two siblings were, by punctuation, one benefactor .
The judge ruled in favor of the slime-ball, and Frank walked away with half of his father's estate. The other two had to split 50%.
The deceased man's lawyer objected to the judge's decision and said,
"Look, your honor. I was this man's friend for 30 years! We played golf together at least once a month. We went on vacations together. He was my child's godfather. We were more like bothers than friends. I KNOW, personally, as his best friend, that he wanted each of his children to have a third of his estate."
The judge responded by saying: "It does not matter what you know he wanted, or even what he wanted. It doesn't even matter what I want. It only matters what the written word says. And, the lack of a comma between the last two siblings makes them one benefactor."
So, how important or valuable is a comma? Well, just ask Frank, Mike, and Sandy . . . I'm sure they each have an opinion.
How does all of this relate to the Gospel of Christ?
Second Timothy 2:15 says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth."
And, I think it is appropriate to add that we must also correctly deliver the word of truth.
More Info on the Comma
Always place a comma . . .
--- Always place a comma after an introductory dependent clause in a complex sentence. See Turabian (3.79).
Example: Until Jesus returns in the second advent, the Church must continue to evangelize the lost.
--- Always place a comma before the coordinating conjunction connecting two (or more) independent clauses.
Examples: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John 1:5). "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already" (John 3:18). The man ate the entire bucket of chicken, and then he got sick.
--- Always place a comma around non-essential, non-restrictive words, phrases, and clauses. See Turabian , 3.72.
-> "Which" always introduces a non-restrictive clause. (needs commas)
-> "That" always introduces a restrictive clause. (no commas needed)
Example: Bob's dog, which barks constantly, is three years old. (needs commas)
Example: Bob's dog that barks constantly is three years old. (no commas needed)
The only difference here is the use of the word which or that . It shows what the author's intent is. In the first sentence, using a non-restrictive clause, the author is implying that Bob has only one dog. In the second sentence, it is implied that Bob has more than one dog, and it is the one that is constantly barking that is three years old.
Note: Academic, formal, writing calls for writing out numbers up to 100. Associated Press (AP) writes out only 1 through 10. Thus, in academic writing, the dog is "three years old," not "3 years old."
--- Always place a comma after an introductory participial phrase.
Examples: "Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, 'Don't be afraid; just believe'" (Mark 5:36). (The word "Ignoring" is a participle, and "Ignoring what they said" is the participial phrase.) Walking through the park, he found a diamond ring.
--- Always place a comma after a second introductory prepositional phrase.
Example: In the book of Acts, Luke records that some Christians spoke in tongues. "In the book" is the first prepositional phrase, and "of Acts" is the second prepositional phrase. These two are joined together to introduce the main clause.
Second Example: Of the men who were at the game, he was the shortest.
Note: You do not need a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase with only one preposition. Example: "In the book Luke records that some Christians spoke in tongues."
"In the book" is the first and only prepositional phrase in this sentence, and a comma is not necessary. Some people prefer to place a comma even after an introductory prepositional phrase with only one preposition. If this is your style, that is fine. However, you must be consistent in your style. Thus, do not have a comma at the end of an introductory prepositional phrase with only one preposition in some cases and not in others. The CES preference is that no comma is used after an introductory prepositional phrase with only one preposition, UNLESS the introductory prepositional phrase has four or more words in it . Then, it takes a comma.
Example: "In that wonderful historical book, Luke records that some Christians spoke in tongues."
--- Always place a comma after an introductory interjection, an independent element, a direct address.
Example: Oh, that's the one. No, I will not go. Dave, hand me the Bible.
--- Always place a comma between coordinate adjectives. (Adjectives are coordinate if they can be reversed and if you can insert "and" between them.)
Examples: The bright, intelligent man was wearing a flashy tie. He was a kind, considerate child.
Next Category--> You may place a comma, but you don't have to. Select your personal style, and be consistent.
1. You may place a comma after introductory adverbs.
Example: Suddenly, the band began to play.
2. You may place a comma after an introductory single prepositional phrase.
Example: At the table, he ate his meal.
3. You may place a comma after three short sentences in a series; however, there must be at least three or more complete sentences.
Example: "She danced, she laughed, she cried."
Important Note : This is actually a run-on, but because they are short sentences, the commas are acceptable--you don't have to use the comma because periods and semicolons would work as well. Commas make you pause, semicolons make you pause longer, and periods make you stop. In the three brief sentences, "She danced, she laughed, she cried" it would seem that semicolons or periods would be too heavy. Therefore, commas may be used to separate these short sentences.
The key to the use of the comma in these three examples is consistency. Choose a style, and stick with it. If you are not consistent throughout your paper or article, your reader will notice it. Inconsistency in style is the mark of an amateur.
For those of you who might be interested: I have produced a six-lecture series on audio tape that comes with a Study Guide. I cover all of the basics of good writing, grammar, punctuation, and more. I have had people with accredited Master's degrees and PhDs buy these tapes and report later that they learned more on this subject from my six lectures and Study Guide than they did from all of their previous education combined. Cost $75. Email me if you are interested in getting a copy.
For those of you who might be interested: I have produced a lecture series on audio with notes. I cover the basics of good writing, grammar, punctuation, and more. I've had people with Master's degrees and PhDs go through these lectures, and some of them told me that they learned more on this subject from my lectures and notes than they had from all of their previous education combined. You can listen to the lectures for free and downlaod the lecture notes as PDFa files (for free) at CES Writing Protocols Lectures.
Send comments about this, or any, Coffee Talk to Rick Walston at: CES - @ - ColumbiaSeminary.edu
(Please note that you will need to take out the spaces and hyphens before and after the @ sign . . . this is placed this way to avoid spam emails.)