Comma Conventions: A Handbook Scavenger Hunt

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comma chameleon

Introduction

Ah, commas, those pesky little minnows of punctuation, swimming all over the page, darting in and out between the sharks and holy mackerels of our sentences. If we look up the comma “rules” in college writing handbooks, we may find as few as 10 entries or as many as 18. That is because there aren’t really “rules” for commas, but rather there are conventional uses for commas. Nonetheless, for ease of finding these uses in the on-line handbook, we will refer to them here as the “rules” found in section P-1 of the Norton Field Guide to Writing.

Instead of focusing on the discrepancy in the number of comma applications indicated in college writing handbooks, we will study comma conventions based on their purposes, and we will relate those purposes to the rules in section P-1 of the online handbook. Essentially, there are four primary purposes for using commas:

  • To ADD information to a sentence--at the beginning, in the middle, or even at the end
  • To SEPARATE elements within a sentence in order to prevent misreading
  • To JOIN clauses (along with conjunctions) to form compound sentences
  • For MECHANICAL and place-holder purposes
  • UNNEEDED commas don’t fulfill any of these functions and should be eliminated from our sentences

Group Project Instructions

  • Determine and indicate which “rules” from the handbook apply to each of the following comma purposes or uses (i.e., P-1a, P-1d, P-1f, etc.).
  • Explain each comma application in your own words, not verbatim from the Little Seagull Handbook or any other source.
  • Compose an original sentence as an example of each comma application, i.e., a sentence of your own creation, not one copied from any source.
  • Teach your group's comma convention to your class colleagues in an oral presentation that includes presentation media of your choice and a method of assessing what they have learned from it.

Resources: Use the section numbers from the Little Seagull Handbook (P-1a. P-1c, etc.), but refer to the other sources listed on the OWL Links web page for more information, more in-depth discussion, and more examples.

I. Using commas to ADD information to sentences (four Little Seagull Handbook rules, eight sample sentences)

At the beginning. Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule, and give three sample sentences: setting off a word, a phrase, a clause.

In the middle. Indicate the section number, explain the two handbook rules (nonessential/nonrestrictive additions and nonessential/parenthetical additions), and give a sample sentence for each.

At the beginning, in the middle, or at the end.  Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule for setting off transitions, and give a sample sentence for each—at least one of the samples will use a transitional phrase and at least one will use a transition word.

II. Using commas to SEPARATE (three Little Seagull Handbook rules, ten sample sentences)

Elements in a series: words, phrases, clauses. Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule, and give a sample sentence for each type of word (modifiers, nouns, verbs), for a phrase and for a clause. That totals five sentences.

Direct quotations. Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule for setting off direct quotes, then give a sample sentence.

Direct addresses, interjections, yes or no, and tag questions. Commas separate or set off these sentence additions and constructions. Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule, and give a sample sentence for each type.

III. Using commas  to JOIN clauses (along with conjunctions) to form compound sentences (three sample sentences)

Joining independent clauses into compound sentences. Indicate the section number, explain the handbook rule, then give three sample sentences using three different coordinating conjunctions.

IV. Using commas for MECHANICAL/place holder purposes (five sample sentences)

Indicate the section number, explain the five handbook rules, then give five sample sentences, one for each comma application exemplified in this section.

V. UNNEEDED commas: Common errors and overuse (five sample sentences)

  • This is NOT a comma rule: “Use a comma to indicate a pause.”
  • Neither do we use commas to separate compound subjects or verbs, unless more than two are listed, per section P-1c.

Indicate the section number, explain the five handbook rules, then give five sample sentences--one for each comma application exemplified in this section.

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