Thursday, January 2, 2014

Commas, the Trickiest Punctuation Mark Ever, Part Two—Clauses and More

Last time, we discussed the Oxford comma, appositives, and parentheticals. This week, we're continuing our work on the comma with pointers on how it works with clauses and how to use it in a quotation or in dialogue.

Commas in clauses

What's a clause?

Clauses are the smallest unit of a sentence that communicates a complete thought. A clause requires nothing more than a noun and a verb.

"When her mother gave her permission, Maria decided it was time to run away."

There are two clauses here: "When her mother gave her permission," and "Maria decided it was time to run away." We could even condense these into "Mother gave" and "Maria decided." That's all it takes to have a clause.

Now, as it happens, one of the clauses is an independent clause and one is a dependent clause. Which one is which, and why? Let's find out.

Independent clauses

Independent clauses are clauses that don't need the other part of the sentence to make sense. Which clause in our previous sentence is the independent clause? "When her mother gave her permission" doesn't make sense on its own, but "Maria decided it was time to run away" makes perfect sense. It doesn't need the first part to get its message across.

Which one is dependent and which is independent?
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Dependent clauses

As you might have guessed, dependent clauses do need their independent counterparts. They depend on them to give them meaning. That would be the "mother's permission" section of our sentence. There always needs to be a comma between a dependent clause and an independent clause.

Commas are also used between independent clauses, like in the sentence "Do you want to get Indian food, or should we order a pizza?" Notice that there is also a conjunction (that's the "or") and that the comma comes before it. This is a wobbly sort of rule, however. Many styles say that the comma can be omitted if the second independent clause is very short.

If there are two independent clauses with the same subject, you don't need a comma. For example, "Beth and Stan danced and sang." This looks a little tricky because the subject is implied with "sang." It would be weird to say "Beth and Stan danced and Beth and Stan sang," right? But even when we take them out, they're still performing the action, so it's still technically a clause.

Commas in quotation and dialogue

Using commas around other punctuation marks can get a little confusing. Here are a few quick tips:
  • Commas should always go inside quotation marks, even if the quotation ends in a period, if you are continuing your sentence. 
    • When Bobby said "I hate you," his mother began to cry.
  • If your quotation or dialogue ends in a question mark or exclamation point, omit the comma, but continue your sentence as usual.
    • When Bobby screamed "I hate you!" his mother began to cry.
    • Obviously, this looks ugly. If at all possible, rearrange the sentence.
      • Bobby's mother began to cry when he screamed "I hate you!"
 Commas are also used in direct address.
    • When you're directly addressing someone, put a comma before their name.
      • Hey, Jean! How are you doing?
      • What do you think, Steve?
      • Look at this, Laura.


      Well, hasn't this been fun? I hope this pair of posts has made things a little clearer. Once you understand the structure of your sentence, it's a lot easier to figure out where the commas go. (Did you notice I had a dependent/independent clause combo there?) There are a few other miscellaneous comma uses that we didn't get to. If you have any questions about them, about this post, or about our polishing service, please comment below or email us.