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  • Rikki Lee

The Comma, Pausing for Effect

You know to place a comma in this sentence don’t you. You might even know where a comma could be added to this sentence but you might have to think about where to place it. What about in this small unassuming sentence? You the reader shouldn’t have to wonder where to place commas; you the writer should have already placed them!

In case you’re totally confused by now, the previous paragraph desperately needed at least one comma in each of the four sentences. Let’s discuss commas, easily the most misunderstood form of punctuation. After all, who knows whether a comma is really needed in a sentence? Even grammarians and copy editors argue with one another about when and where to use commas. So, what do we usually do about commas in our instructional design projects? We might:

  • Bend or break the grammatical rules we learned in school.

  • Not give commas much thought but write what “looks” good or what “reads” well.

  • Omit a comma here and there in an e-learning script, storyboard or PowerPoint slide, often when they should have been added.

The purpose of punctuation

But learners, classroom instructors and script narrators really do require our best punctuation when they navigate a project. Why? As they read text on the screen or on the page, most people use their internal voice or their actual voice. If they come to a sentence that doesn’t make sense, they’ll usually go back to the beginning and try again, then go back a third time and parse it until it finally does make sense (or they decide it's a poorly written sentence).

Putting commas in the right places can prevent these additional readings. Not to mention, commas give the narrator opportunities to breathe during recording, and offer the learner the ability to follow the narrator’s tempo.

The comma serves either as a road sign (to tell the reader when to slow down) or as headlights (to shine some additional brightness for improved clarity). Imagine driving through a busy intersection without a four-way stop sign or at night on a country road without high beams.

We like to have total control over what we write, so sometimes we struggle to place the comma. (“I know a comma belongs here, but where does it go?”) A comma that looks proper in a sentence might be deleted with no difference in the sentence’s meaning. On the other hand, adding a comma could help the reader understand that sentence on the first reading. Rewording or splitting the sentence so it doesn’t need a comma is also a good idea.

The comma rules Although I admit to receiving some inspiration while reading Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, a new book from Random House’s Benjamin Dreyer, I have rules about the comma that I've practiced in nearly 40 years of professional editing and proofreading experience. So, here are some rules I find most helpful, and there really aren’t many:

1. To improve understanding: In general, a comma separates parts of sentences that need separation, mostly to give the learner a short break before something new arrives. For example, you might add a comma between two longer stand-alone parts joined by a conjunction (“but,” “or,” “and,” etc.), but you might not between shorter stand-alone parts. (For example, read these two sentences aloud: “Multitasking around hazardous areas can increase safety risks, but paying attention can help reduce those risks.” vs. “Talk to your manager and always obey the safety rules.” There should nearly always be a conjunction between two longer parts, even if you have a comma; otherwise, that’s a run-on sentence.

The same rule applies to introductory words, phrases or clauses: If the intro is short, you probably don’t need a comma: “Quickly remove any parts and debris.” But include the comma for clarity, such as: “Next May Mary Smith will join the board of directors.” (The narrator is wondering: is it “Next, May Mary Smith will…” or “Next May, Mary Smith will…”?) If the intro is long, you’ll definitely need a comma.

2. To break apart items in a list: Add a comma after each item in a series, but not always after the item before “and” or “or,” unless your style guide requires it. This serial (or Oxford) comma is either a passion or a nuisance of any editor. Adding a serial comma when it’s not needed doesn’t do any harm, but it can help make more sense in some cases: “I learned humility from my parents, Harry Truman, and Marilyn Monroe.” (If you don’t include the serial comma in that sentence, people may think your parents were a president and an actress.) The serial comma is also preferred as a way to isolate each series item when there are multiple words in each item, or to disconnect two items in a series that have multiple verb forms in the first or both items (as in this sentence).

3. To separate people, sometimes: When you use a person’s name in a sentence, focus on the words around the person to determine if a comma is needed. If the meaning can be understood without mentioning the person’s name, include the comma. If it can’t, don’t include the comma. (For example, read these two sentences aloud: “My brother Steve is a doctor; my brother Sam is a lawyer.” vs. “My youngest sister, Alice, is my son’s godmother.”) And when a character in a scenario is talking directly to a person, include the comma. (“Have a seat, Jim.”) Also include a comma when describing someone (even without their name), such as “The company president, a former hockey player, extols the virtues of fitness.”

4. To build anticipation of important things ahead: If you want your narrator to rush through the script, don’t include any more commas than you need. But if you want the learner to get ready for important information, consider adding commas. (For example, read these two sentences aloud: “First, turn the machine off.” vs. “First turn the machine off.”) Scripts for health and safety courses generally require more pauses for effect.

5. To show everyone that you know the difference between "which" and "that":

If you can consider a modifying clause optional for the sentence to make sense, add the comma and use “which.” If you can't consider the clause optional, use “that” and no comma. (For example: “The company regularly enacts health and safety policies, which all employees must follow.” vs. “The company regularly enacts policies that improve health and safety.”)

6. To pause for its own sake: This is known as the “discretionary comma.” Feel free to add commas to a sentence, even when they’re not needed, if you want to highlight a part of the sentence (in this sentence, “even when they’re not needed”). But don’t overdo it.

What are the rules about when not to use a comma or when to use other punctuation instead? We’ll leave those rules for another post. But if a comma doesn’t look like it belongs, it probably doesn’t. In general, you should remove any comma that incorrectly interferes with the smooth flow of a sentence. (For example: “Cities both large and small, operate facilities for public recreation.”)

What’s most important Despite the need for such rules, it’s more important to present the knowledge you want the learner to gain than it is to worry about one single element. So, don’t obsess about having perfect commas. But you can improve your punctuation skills by asking a colleague to review what you’ve written. Many instructional designers consider themselves good writers (and know their way around grammar), but someone whom you trust can provide extra clarity with their own edits. This enhances the writing process for you and provides further understanding for your learners.

Finally, in case you were wondering, the commas in the first paragraph of this blog should be placed as follows:

  • You know to place a comma in this sentence, don’t you. (This is not a question, so you don’t need a question mark at the end.)

  • You might even know where a comma could be added to this sentence, but you might have to think about where to place it.

  • What about in this small, unassuming sentence?

  • You, the reader, shouldn’t have to wonder where to place commas; you, the writer, should have already placed them!

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