Another of the Pesky Commas

by Cherie Tucker

If you have only two things in a sentence, whether they are single words or phrases or clauses, you don’t need to separate them with a comma.  A big dog needs no pause between big and dog.  A big, ugly, snarling dog requires the little speed bumps to separate those adjectives. There are three words describing that dog, and more than two items in a series require separation (even requiring the comma before the final and, but that was another column). When there are only two, however, the comma serves no purpose except to confound the reader. 

One of the most frequent of these comma errors occurs when a sentence has a compound verb—a subject is doing more than one thing, as in Bill tripped and fell.  You wouldn’t put a comma before the and, because Bill did only those two things.  The sneaky comma insertion comes when there are lots of other words between tripped and the second verb, fell.  If the sentence read Bill tripped on the ragged edge of the old carpet that had been in the hall for years and fell down the stairs, many people would add the comma before the and.  They may think they need that break so the reader will know when to breathe.  The fact is that Bill has still done only two things: he tripped and fell.  There is no need for a comma.  It is a major mistake to add one.  (And readers have been known to breathe even while reading insurance policies.) 

Another interrupted couplet happens when you have only two things that are receiving the action of a verb (if you had Nuns, you know those were called direct objects).  For example: They painted the barn and the shed.  Again, if other descriptive words are added, that comma could sneak right in:  They painted that old barn a beautiful red (no comma here) and the shed a dull green. It looks like this longish sentence needs a break, but there are still only two words in that series, red and green

Check to see if your commas are necessary when you do your final edit.  If there are only two verbs or two objects, however prettily they may be dressed up, keep the comma for another time.  The careful reader will thank you.

Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.  She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits as well.

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