January 19, 2012

Weekly Language Usage Tips: that & commas

Posted in commas, that at 6:50 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: That

A reader writes:

Hello, I’m a weekly reader but haven’t contacted you before. In this example, is the “that” optional, wrong, or correct? “Mr. X said [that] he likes coffee.” This would be for a formal write-up, like meeting minutes.

My answers are sometimes, no, and yes. Let me explain, but I’ll start with the last and work my way back.

The reader asks if ‘that’ is correct in the construction, “Mr. X said that he likes coffee.”

The answer is yes. ‘That’ is acting as a conjunction, here, and is used to introduce the noun clause, “he likes coffee,” and this usage is absolutely correct.

The reader asks if ‘that’ is wrong in that construction.

The answer is no; it is fine.

The reader asks if ‘that’ is optional in that construction.

The answer is sometimes. Conversationally and in very informal writing, the ‘that’ is optional. But in any type of formal writing (including the reader’s minutes and all of the professional writing we do), the ‘that’ is not optional and should always be used.

‘That’ is a bit of a wild word. It can function as an adjective, a conjunction, a pronoun, or an adverb. Don’t worry about how it is used; just know that we want to use ‘that’ in our formal writing.

Tip 2: Commas

We’ve been in a frenzy of grant proposal writing and reading around here. For some of us, sleep is a fond but distant memory. And having been caught up in it myself, I have come to one somewhat sad but inescapable conclusion: No one knows how to use commas. No one. That excludes me, of course, but no one else knows how. I don’t understand it myself; it seems relatively simple. I think I blame in on the teachers you had  when you were a child who told you to use a comma everywhere you would pause when speaking. What drivel! What a mess! Everyone’s speaking style is different resulting in a morass of commas used willy nilly, hither and yon. What’s a poor writer to do?

Okay guys, here it is, the definitive list of rules of comma usage. I know we’ve gone through this before, but I am eternally hopeful. Now, PAY ATTENTION.

PLEASE NOTE: I’ve heavily edited all of the examples below, so no use speculating about authorship; any unfortunate writing is all mine.

1. Use commas to separate items in a list.

The total health care costs of participants receiving the intervention will: (a) decrease over the timeframe of the study, (b) show a similar change as is seen for individuals receiving traditional treatment, and (c)  be lower than among age- and sex-matched adults from the same clinical practices.

The items are those of (a), (b), and (c), so commas are needed.

2. Use a comma before the word ‘and’ in a list. This is called a serial comma, and it should be used to avoid ambiguity.

We will select applicants who are highly motivated, talented, and have excellent training in their content area.

A classic example demonstrating the ambiguity without the commas is this dedication:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

versus

To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Much clearer.

3. Use  a comma before the conjunction (e.g., and, but, or, so, yet) in a sentence with an independent clause on either side of the conjunction. (An independent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb and can stand on  its own as a sentence.)

The focus is on physicians encouraging loved ones who are physicians to be part of the care team, and we hope that this mechanism also encourages non-physicians to play an integral role.

Each clause can stand on its own as a complete sentence, so a comma is needed before ‘and.’

The focus is on physicians encouraging loved ones who are physicians to be part of the care team.

We hope that this mechanism also encourages non-physicians to play an integral role.

But if either clause is not independent and can’t stand on its own as a sentence, then DO NOT USE A COMMA.

Physicians are more likely to counsel when they feel counseling is important and when they are knowledgeable about the topic.

NO COMMA. This is a very common mistake. You only use the comma if BOTH clauses can stand on their own.

Physicians are more likely to counsel when they feel counseling is important, and doctors counsel most when they are knowledgeable about the topic.

4. Use a comma to separate introductory words from the rest of the sentence.

Upon survey completion, you will be provided with an email address that you can use to register for a chance to win.

5. Use commas (before and after) to separate a parenthetical phrase from the rest of the sentence.

The application, no longer than ten pages, must describe the design of the proposed model.

6. Use a comma between adjectives if the comma could be replaced by the words, ‘and’ or ‘but.’ If you can substitute ‘and’ or ‘but,’ the adjectives are coordinate adjectives that call for a comma. If it doesn’t make sense when you put in ’and’ or ‘but,’ then you DO NOT USE a comma.

I expect that the legal, justified argument will finally prevail.

She called me a little old lady, and all I could do was nod.

7. Use a comma to set off a quotation.

William James once said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

There are other rules about when to use commas (e.g., in addresses, salutations, dates), and there are even some exceptions, but for our purposes, these are the main ones. If you learn these, my head won’t be spinning during the next proposal frenzy, and I would very much appreciate that.

2 Comments »

  1. Grace said,

    This question is not related to commas. In the example you provide, “We will select applicants who are highly motivated, talented, and have excellent training in their content area,” should you have an “and” between “motivated” and “talented”? Even though these are dependent clauses, it seems as if you would need to put the “and” so the first clause could stand on its own if it had to. It would also make the phrases more parallel (“who are highly motivated…” and “[who] have excellent…”

  2. Michael Carrigan said,

    I stumbled across this blog when trying to get some examples of when to use certain grammar.

    I look forward to seeing more posts.


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