To Beat a Grammarian: Commas (Part Two)
You can read Strunk & White and other books of the sort, but when it comes down to it, commas are frustrating. Every writer uses them differently. Some clutter it up; others go light and sparse with them—ask Hemingway. But certain usages are needed, not just for pauses, but clarity. In this round, we’re still dealing with the basics. In other words, the must-do’s of comma work.
Most of the time, these words or phrases act as a transition, so I’m labeling it thus, as do certain grammar books. Mainly, what this is talking about is the type of long or short clauses appended to the front of a sentence, like the first two in this paragraph. These clauses are there to smooth out writing and connect ideas. Unfortunately, some writers don’t slip in the commas to make things clearer. For example:
Luckily he had more time and was able to catch up on his missed work.
Though the missing comma doesn’t obscure the meaning or distract the reader, it is customary to have one, and to grammarians, this will stick out like bedhead in church. In other words, they’ll go ballistic, calling you a “hack.” So be careful.
Side note: one word that seems to divide this strict comma rule is ‘then.’ Some toss a comma on after it; others don’t. As far as I understand, its use is preference, but sticklers will be sticklers. Look at the example below, and decide for yourself.
Then he went home or Then, he went home.
With this one, I understand whole-heartedly why a comma is needed. Preposition phrases are a bane to teach my students. Compared to Korean, English abounds with ridiculous prepositions and the different subtleties linked to them. In this way, I guess Korean gets its revenge on us with its multiple layers of honorifics. I will, for the rest of my life, indirectly offend the Koreans I speak with due to my poor honorific understanding. Nonetheless, for native speakers, preposition phrases and their commas should roll more smoothly.
Despite the monkeys eating outside dinner was fun.
Hopefully, you can feel the confusion here. Is this sentence saying: despite the monkeys; despite the monkeys eating; or despite the monkeys eating outside? If your reader has to sit down and ponder this—you will lose them quickly to an easier to read book. For this reason, please, please, please, insert a comma after the noun connected to the preposition.
As for the answer to that strange sentence, you can decide for yourself. But clearly, a comma is needed. Next week, I hope to go on to more, and it’s going to get hairier soon.
Anything I missed, please post it. Thanks!