Comma Chameleon

No, this is not about that popular tune from the ‘80s (if you’re familiar with pop tunes from that decade, you’ll know what I’m talking about). This is about one of the most versatile punctuation marks of the English language — the comma. (By the time I finish this paragraph, I will have used it three times.)

Some of us don’t really follow rules on comma usage. However (here goes another one), I think it’s really important that we know how to use it properly. We all know that we use it for separating items in a series (as in this use: smartphones, tablets, netbooks, etc.). We also generally use it when there’s a pause in thought (you can refer to the parenthetical statement in the first paragraph as an example for this usage).

For those of you who love to read and write, you’re probably familiar with that extreme example of the importance of using the comma, which is a joke about a panda firing at a cafés patrons. The joke goes:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. ‘Why?’ asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. ‘Well, I’m a panda,’ he says, at the door. ‘Read the manual.’ The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.’

(from Eats, Shoots, and Leaves)

We certainly won’t see that happening in real life, but that illustrates, albeit in humorous fashion, the importance of using the comma and even about its proper placement.

Here’s another example I’ve come up with that shows how important it is to use the comma correctly. This time, when using the vocative case. In case you’re wondering what the vocative case is, grammar.about.com defines it as ‘A word or phrase used to address a reader or listener directly, usually in the form of a personal name, title, or term of endearment.’ (ex: ‘Good day, Madam.’) When addressing someone (or even something) directly when writing, we need to separate the name being used from the rest of the sentence with (you guessed it right) the comma.

Why is this important? Well, consider this example:

Imagine writing ‘I can teach Michael.’ instead of ‘I can teach, Michael.’ when you’re actually writing to someone named Michael and telling him that you have the ability to teach, and not that you have the ability to teach him or some other ‘Michael.’

Not that this can mean the difference between life and death, but it helps to know when and how to use this versatile punctuation mark.

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