Writing - Written by on Friday, June 17, 2011 12:36 - 0 Comments

The Top 3 Misused Commas in Scholarly Writing

As a copy editor I can tell you that the most misused punctuation in scholarly writing is the comma. The comma is used in so many cases in English that it is difficult to keep them straight. Coupled with the fact that most scholarly writers place pauses in their writing much like they place pauses in speech, the comma is often misused, misapplied, or ignored.

Below are examples of the top 3 misuses of the comma found in scholarly writing. With a little practice, you can avoid these mistakes and make your writing more scholarly.

1. Commas used in parenthetical expressions

Unlike its name suggests, a parenthetical expression does not always involve parentheses. A parenthetical expression occurs when a sentence includes a phrase or clause that adds value to the main idea but is not necessary to get the point across. Such phrases are placed between commas. The mistake many scholarly writers make is to use one rather than two commas. Take the following sentence, which contains such an error:

The cheapest way to pay for college if you qualify is with federal loans.

The phrase if you qualify is a parenthetical expression. Without the commas, the sentence is awkward. A more complicated sentence with this error can be unreadable. Many writers add only one comma to offset the expression. Take these two examples:

The cheapest way to pay for college, if you qualify is with federal loans.

The cheapest way to pay for college if you qualify, is with federal loans.

Notice again that these sentences are awkward. The only way to fix these errors is to offset the entire phrase with commas. The sentence should read:

The cheapest way to pay for college, if you qualify, is with federal loans.

Another solution is to place the expression at the beginning of the sentence:

If you qualify, the cheapest way to pay for college is with federal loans.

2. Commas before conjunctions when introducing independent clauses

This mistake made by scholarly writers often involves the conjunctions and or but. The error occurs because the writer does not realize that unrelated or semi-unrelated thoughts need more than a conjunction to separate them. Take this example:

The subject reached over the table and picked up the instrument.

In this case no comma is necessary because the two thoughts (reached over the table and picked up the instrument) are related closely. Take this example:

The subject dropped the instrument but the experiment continued.

In this case the two thoughts in the sentence are less related. A comma is appropriate because there is a slight break necessary before the word but. Say the sentence aloud if you are having trouble detecting it. The sentence should be written:

The subject dropped the instrument, but the experiment continued.

There is often a fine line between conjunctions that require a comma before them and those that do not. When in doubt, read the sentence aloud and see if you automatically place a slight pause before the conjunction. If you do, use a comma.

3. Commas joining independent clauses (comma versus semi-colon)

Two independent clauses usually need more separation than a comma offers. In these cases, a period or semi-colon is appropriate. Take this example:

The man’s hat was purple, it was a sight to see.

Notice that there are two independent clauses in the sentence above and the comma is not enough to break them up. In this case, a period or semi-colon is necessary:

The man’s hat was purple. It was a sight to see.

The man’s hat was purple; it was a sight to see.

In this example, the semi-colon is probably more appropriate to avoid short, choppy sentences. Keep in mind that a writer could also change the sentence around and avoid all this nonsense with periods versus semi-colons altogether. Take this restructuring:

A sight to see, the man’s hat was purple.

Not the most sophisticated sentence, but a good writer always remembers to step away from writing once in a while and rethink awkward phrasing; never force punctuation when it may be avoided.



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John GargerJohn Garger is a copy editor, proofreader, dissertation coach, researcher, writer, and entrepreneur living in upstate New York, USA.
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