Categories: max syntax

Comma, die! is more like it. Many people feel profoundly uncomfortable around commas, vaguely recalling a mess of murky grammar school rules, fearing that somehow, obscurely, they are doing something wrong with their commas. Let's peer into the murk. We've already examined the serial comma; let's look at the introductory one.


Comma-dy question #1: At the beginning of sentences, do I need a comma after the first couple of words?


Answer: It depends. Whether you need a comma after your introductory words depends on whether they are a phrase or clause, on the style of the publication you are writing for, and your own personal preference.


Eats, Shoots & Leaves


Phrases are word groups with no verbs and no subjects. Sentences often open with prepositional phrases, such as "In the beginning," "In 1994," "Before breakfast," "After Ellen," "On top of old Smokey," and the like. Whether you use a comma after such phrases is up to you or your boss, if you are editing or writing professionally for publication.


Just pick one way and stick to it. Or your boss will. Many style guides enforce the comma after introductory phrase rule, but be conscious that one way is not better than another. If you are writing on your own, once again, choose one style and stick with it. "Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds" and all that, but consistent punctuation can help make the style transparent so the reader's attention is on the information, not the surface presentation. That is, if a reader subtly notices, "Hey, there was a comma here but not there but the structure is the same," you are drawing attention away from what you are saying to how you are saying it. If you want the attention drawn that way, good; if not, just be consistent.


Clauses have subjects and verbs: "when I was young," "although the cat had already eaten," "After Aunt Em skinned the polecat," and so on. When these clauses come at the beginning of a sentence, the prevailing style is to place a comma between the clause and the rest of the sentence. You can disregard this, or follow its opposite, but once again, be consistent.


Be a hobgoblin! It's okay.


(And yes, there will be plenty more on commas in the coming months.)


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