Can Commas, Change Meaning

comma.jpgOne of the most difficult punctuation marks to teach, almost certainly, is the comma. Just like anything else, the more one forces his/her brain to think about these rules, the easier it becomes to pull them out of the dusty recesses of the mind when needed.

Below are listed some of the “main comma uses,” as provided in the Third Edition of The Bedford Handbook for Writers.

1. Before a coordinating conjunction joining independent clauses: No grand idea was ever born in a conference, but many foolish ideas have died there.Basically, a good rule to follow is when one has a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet), try to replace it with a period and form two sentences. Does it make sense? If it does, then replace the conjunction with a comma immediately preceding it.

My mother sent me to the store to buy milk, and it was on sale.

In the above example, the coordinating conjunction, “and,” can be removed, which forms two independent sentences. My mother sent me to the store is the first independent clause, and it was on sale is the second independent clause. Therefore, there MUST be a comma before the conjunction.

2. After an introductory clause or phrase: If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. Clauses or phrases which require a comma immediately afterusually tell when, where, how, why, or under what conditions the main action of the sentence occurred. For example, if one were to write, In the summer, the weather is quite warm, a comma after summer is needed. The only time a comma is not required is when there can be no confusion by the reader in the sentence. When John was ready to eat, his cat jumped on the table. Omitting the comma could leave the reader with the impression of a cat-eating man named John.

3. Between all items in a series: All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening. Sometimes, however, the final comma is omitted. We, who major in Journalism, are taught often that the conjunction (i.e. and, or or but) takes the place of the comma, and therefore it is not needed. You may notice in newspapers that this tends to be the case.

4. Between Coordinate Adjectives: There is a mighty big difference between good, sound reasons and reasons that sound good. Our school of thought in this case is that the comma actually can be replaced by the word “and,” and the sentence doesn’t change its meaning. Good and sound are the reasons. Another example is “The bride was blonde, slender and altogether stunning.

5. To set off Nonrestrictive Elements: Silence, which will save me from shame, will also deprive me of fame. When we are adding a phrase of a several words, we need to encapsulate it with commas. If the meaning does not change with the omission of the words within the pair of commas, then it is nonrestrictive. Writing of your only son, his name needs to be surrounded by commas. However, if we write, “social networking strategist Jay Deragon…” we do not need a pair of commas surrounding the name. Why? Because, out of all the people in the world, Jay is not the only social networking strategist.

These are but five rules which guide us to correct comma usage. When in doubt, read the sentence aloud, and put commas where you pause naturally – in most cases. Another option is to hire a¬†professional copywriter or English or Journalism major to proofread what you’ve written.

How ’bout it?

Explore posts in the same categories: grammar, relationship economy, social networking, The Communications Factors

Tags: , , , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

24 Comments on “Can Commas, Change Meaning”

  1. Anonymous Says:


  2. Anonymous Says:


  3. John Burton Says:

    Of course commas can, and do, change meaning.
    I am trying to locate a ‘famous’ sentence of some 7 or 8 words which, in the placement of but one comma, can have 7 or so different meanings.
    Can anyone direct me to this sentence? (There may be more than one, of course!)

  4. John Burton Says:

    I just noticed – reading the heading quickly – that “Can Commas, Change Meaning” is not a sentence at all, and certainly not a question! But I read it as such and commented on it as such.
    I think it means, “Can commas change meaning?”
    My earlier question remains!!!

  5. John Burton Says:

    Is there no one out there?
    Let me hear from you – PLEASE!
    [But then perhaps this really isn’t an interactive site at all?]

    • Sorry, John. My title, Can Commas, Change Meaning is not really a sentence, you are right. However, the meaning I meant to convey was if you can (dispose of) commas, you change the meaning. I know if was a bit confusing, but that was the point I was making.

      Let me look around in some of my books for a sentence in which the placement of one comma alters the meaning.

      I’ll get back to you soon.

  6. John Burton Says:

    Glad to hear from you, and thanks for your explanation. [I wasn’t quite sure how this site worked!] I love the English Language with a passion!
    The sentence I am trying to find is just a few words long, but can be made to ‘say’ almost as many different things by the varying pacement of the comma as there are words in the sentence.
    The reason I am looking for this particular sentence is that I have never seen as good a one for my purposes – and I’m not the greatest at creating one either!
    I am tutoring a Chinese person and am learning almost as much about Chinese from her as I hope I am imparting to her about our language. Fortunately, she is like a sponge and learns quickly. I want her to see what the comma can do to change the meaning of just these few words.

    • John – Thanks for being patient for my response. I have looked around for a “famous” sentence, and I came up with two sort of famous ones. The first comes from the book titled, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves which is quite an enjoyable book to read and I recommend it to you and your student.

      One example of confusing punctuation I remember is:
      “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” (as opposed to)
      “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

      Here’s another dated example from a certain school’s student handbook:

      Work, which requires the pledge, is incomplete without it.

      Does all work require the pledge? According to the punctuation above, the answer is yes, since the commas make the clause non essential (just giving more description of the work as opposed to pointing out WHICH work we’re discussing).

      Work which requires the pledge is incomplete without it.

      This sentence, on the other hand, says that only work which requires the pledge is incomplete without it, perhaps letting some kids off the hook!

      I also subscribe to the e-newsletter from Jane Straus. She usually has good stuff contained in it, and I like to hone my skills. You might see if you want to subscribe to the free newsletter!

      Let me know if I can help you further!

  7. John Burton Says:

    Thanks for your reply and searching.
    Yes, my Pastor gave me the book “Eats, shoots and leaves’ not long ago, since he, a retired teacher, knew I was passionate about our language, and I love it!
    But I still want to find this sentence that can be ‘commaed’ (an interesting ‘word’?) in so many ways just by the varying placement of a comma.
    Please keep searching – I feel your resources are probably far superior to mine, as I rely mostly on my (failing!) memory.
    Cheers, John090622-21:12EDT

  8. hannah Says:

    john burton ur wierd but i need to do my englis homework and i need to find three sentences which, when u put commaz in it changes the meaning plz help me =]x

  9. hannah Says:

    * sory english x

  10. John Burton Says:

    Hi, Hannah!
    In spite of your comment (“ur wierd”)and terrible modern ‘text-speak’ (“ur” meaning, presumably, “you are”), I will try and give you several examples. (Btw – by the way, an excepted abbreviation! – I love the Spanish language almost as much as English, but am NOT good at it!)
    1a) The Panda eats, shoots, and leaves. (sorry, a blatant crib!)
    1b) The Panda eats shoots and leaves.
    2a) I left him my car in the parking lot.
    2b) I left him, my car in the parking lot.
    3a) When did you eat last?
    3b) When did you eat,last?
    Not very good or original, but I hope this helps.

  11. anonymus Says:

    heyy peeeeoooooooooooooople

  12. johnnyyboi Says:

    i need a good comma change sentence

  13. John Burton Says:

    Not terribly good, but how about this? –

    She appeared to be a little old lady.
    She appeared to be a little old, lady!

  14. Eric Says:

    very famous biblically:

    “i say you today, you will be with me in paradise”
    I say you, today you will be with me in paradise”

    the correct is the first one, in the orioginal hrebrew there were no commas and seems written in greek there are no commas either

  15. Riley Says:

    There are lots of sentences that adding a comma can change the sentence’s meaning. For example: Let’s eat, Grandma! Vs.: Let’s eat Grandma! There is a childrens book called “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” that gives examples and illustrates them too. I recommend you read it if you do not understand, even if you are an adult.

  16. John Burton Says:

    Riley: If you read the posts ahead of yours, you will see that this book has already been discussed. Yes, it is an excellent book and explains the comma very well.

  17. bob Says:

    this is one:

    giant moving, sale on friday
    giant moving sale on friday


    lets eat mommy!
    lets eat, mommy!

  18. Sakshi Jain Says:

    Ethyl alcohol and other spirits, denatured, of any strength. in how many ways can this sentence be interpreted?

  19. John Burton Says:

    Sorry, that is not a sentence to begin with!
    Please try again and we’ll work on it.

    • Thanks, John. You seem to be taking up the slack from my inactivity on this blog, and I appreciate it immensely!

      I agree with you that Sakishi’s “sentence” is not a sentence. There needs to be a predicate (a verb) in addition to noun(s).

      “Ethyl alcohol and other spirits, denatured, of any strength are sold at the corner store.”

  20. Maria Roma Says:

    I didn’t marry him because I loved him. -> I married him, but for other reasons and not out of love.
    I didn’t marry him, because I loved him. -> I didn’t marry him, but out of love for him.

  21. ms. kay Says:

    I found this in an internet search i conducted when i asked for examples of how punctuation can change a sentence:

    “It’s not punctuation related but I know word nerds will appreciate it.

    If you say this sentence seven times, placing the emphasis on a different word each time, you insinuate a different meaning.

    I never said she stole my money.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: