by Cherie Tucker
If you have only one adjective describing something, there is no need for a comma to separate it from the word being described. (That’s a beautiful rose.) If you wax rhapsodic and add more adjectives, then you need commas. (That’s a beautiful, delicate, perfect, red rose.) Most of you have that one down. But the crime of separating subjects from their verbs with a single comma is becoming epidemic.
The frequent killer mistake comes with longish sentences that have a single subject but a compound verb (there is more than one action that the subject is doing):
He walked to the store and bought some cupcakes.
The subject is He, and he did two things: walked and bought. There is no need for a comma before the and. However, when the verbs are not as close together as these two are, there is trouble. Consider this one:
He walked to the nearest convenience store he could think of in this new town and bought some cupcakes.
Many people want to put the comma after “town” because there might be the need to breathe after such a long stretch. Nevertheless, the subject (He) still did only two things, walked and bought. Putting a comma before the and is like putting a comma after the subject in
I, love you.
It makes no sense. You must never separate the subject from its verb with a single comma, and that includes a second verb. Find the subject of your sentence and determine if there is one action that the subject is doing or more than one. You may separate the subject from its verb with two commas that start and stop an interruption between them, but that’s different. For example,
I, on the other hand, love you.
Even if you think the sentence is so long that before you get to your second verb the reader will die from lack of oxygen, don’t put in that single comma. The reader will breathe and breathe better without it. (Did you notice there was no comma before that and?)
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. Grammarworks@msn.com.