August 14, 2018
The simple insertion, deletion, or relocation of a comma (or two) can alter a sentence’s meaning, so when writing or editing a sentence, carefully analyze it to determine whether the punctuation (or lack thereof) serves its intended meaning or whether it creates grammatical confusion. The following examples illustrate the significant difference punctuation can make; discussion after each sentence explains the problem and provides a solution.
1. Relaxed capital and leverage requirements are favorable to depository institutions as they allow institutions to put more of their capital to work and may even provide consumers with more access to credit.
Punctuation helps readers recognize the meaning of a word that, in identical syntactical arrangements, can have distinct meanings. In this sentence, as appears to function as a synonym for while in the sense of referencing a simultaneous occurrence. However, the clause that follows as is an explanation—here, as is a synonym for because—and is therefore a dependent clause, which means that it must be preceded by punctuation: “Relaxed capital and leverage requirements are favorable to depository institutions, as they allow institutions to put more of their capital to work and may even provide consumers with more access to credit.”
2. It is a never-ending campaign to stay in step with adversaries, and wherever possible, anticipate their next move.
In this sentence, the intended function of the commas is to set off a parenthetical phrase, but the placement of the first comma erroneously suggests that its purpose is to separate two independent clauses. The parenthetical phrase is “wherever possible,” not “and wherever possible”—test this fact by temporarily omitting each alternative from the sentence and seeing which statement is still grammatically valid—so the first comma must follow, not precede, and: “It is a never-ending campaign to stay in step with adversaries and, wherever possible, anticipate their next move.” (Because the phrase that follows and is not an independent clause—there is no subject—no additional comma is required before the conjunction.)
3. I consider movies, such as Get Out, examples of artwork that provoke discussion about our society.
The commas bracketing “such as Get Out” imply that that phrase is expendable—that the sentence is valid without it. But the writer is referring to a category of movies that the film Get Out exemplifies in some quality, so that phrase is essential to the sentence and therefore cannot be treated as a parenthetical phrase: “I consider movies such as Get Out examples of artwork that provokes discussion about our society.” (If movies were qualified with an adjective, as in the phrase “movie that allegorically pertain to racism,” then “such as Get Out” would be valid as a parenthetical phrase because it suggests an example of a specified category of film, rather than just one film in the all-encompassing category of “movies.”)
4. Getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time, is intrinsically valuable to any organization.
The segmentation of the first three phrases in this sentence is unnecessary and obtrusive. The writer of this sentence assumes that punctuation is required to distinguish the three factors referenced sequentially in this sentence, but the prepositions to and at serve this function: “Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is intrinsically valuable to any organization.”
5. Directors can’t get the information they need to make critical decisions because the company’s ability to effectively measure and report on key risks is limited.
If this sentence continued after limited, with an alternative explanation for why directors can’t get the information they need (following a semicolon), then the phrase “because . . . is limited” would be essential to the sentence. But in the sentence as written, “because . . . is limited” is a subordinate (and therefore nonessential) clause, and it should be set off from the main clause (“directors . . . critical decisions”): “Directors can’t get the information they need to make critical decisions, because the company’s ability to effectively measure and report on key risks is limited.”
6. It’s kind of scary actually.
When an adverb appearing at the end of a sentence is intrinsic to the sentence, do not include intervening punctuation, as in “We visit them annually.” (Without annually, the sentence “We visit them” would not convey the intended information—the frequency with which they visit—so annually is essential to the statement.) But in this case, actually merely serves as an informal form of emphasis—it merely strengthens the admission but does not add meaning—so it is set off from the main clause: “It’s kind of scary, actually.” (Also, actually should be set off if it precedes the main clause—“Actually, it’s kind of scary”—but no punctuation is necessary if the adverb is inserted within the clause: “It’s actually kind of scary.”)
7. What’s different is they came of age at a difficult time.
The subject of this sentence is they, and what comes before is a dependent introductory clause, which must be set off from the main clause by a comma: “What’s different is, they came of age at a difficult time.”
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By Mark Nichol
Originally published at DailyWritingTips