When Not to Use a Comma on the ACT English Test
Overused and misused—these words often apply to comma placement. Due to the multiple roles a comma can play, even in the context of one sentence, a writer’s uncertainty may lead to applying too many commas or misplacing them. The first two points below pertain to unnecessary commas, and the final point addresses the instance in which a comma by itself is never the right choice.
Commas do not set off an essential phrase
Unlike a parenthetical (i.e., interrupting) expression that could be omitted from the sentence leaving the primary meaning intact, an essential phrase or clause is one that is necessary to the meaning of the entire sentence. Commas should not appear around such information because the commas imply extraneous details. To illustrate, note the difference between essential and non-essential information in this incorrectly punctuated example:
A friend, whom one can call at any time, day or night, is a person to dearly appreciate.
If we insert a comma after friend, the reader assumes that information can be deleted and the sentence will retain its intended meaning. The resulting sentence would be:
A friend, day or night, is a person to dearly appreciate.
Notice how the meaning of the statement is now lacking. The main message has shifted to any friend being appreciated. That may be a valid point, but it is not the original one the writer intended to convey.
This sentence should be written:
A friend whom one can call at any time, day or night, is a person to dearly appreciate.
It is possible to delete the appositive “day or night” and still retain the sentence’s intended meaning. They simply clarify what the writer means by “at any time.”
Commas do not appear in front of or between phrases or dependent clauses necessary to the sentence’s meaning
At first glance, this rule appears to be identical to the previous one; however, this time we are looking at phrases and dependent information that come at the end of a sentence, not in the middle. Notice that a comma is not placed before the words in italics in these sample statements:
“Lewis knew he had taken a wrong turn when he saw a sign that read, ‘Private Property.’”
“I hope to live up to my mother’s expectations of earning a college education and finding work in a fulfilling career.”
In the first example, the subordinate clause “when he saw a sign that read, ‘Private Property’” serves as an adverb describing when and how Lewis realized he was in the wrong place. This descriptive information is essential to the sentence’s meaning. Placing a comma in front of the clause would indicate just the opposite and leave readers with an unfinished point: “Lewis knew he had taken a wrong turn.” Similarly, in that same example, the subordinate clause “that read, ‘Private Property’” adds further necessary details. Without this information, the sentence would again be incomplete: “Lewis knew he had taken a wrong turn when he saw a sign.” In summary, each dependent clause builds on the material in front of it.
The second example offers several phrases that work in succession to establish an object for the verb “hope.” One little comma placed in front of the infinitive phrase “to live” does serious damage to the statement’s intent because the comma indicates that what follows could be omitted. What would be left if the writer did so? “I hope.” “I hope” what exactly? Also, as tempting as it might be to separate each phrase within that long ending section with commas, that is not how phrases work most of the time. That is, they are not working as a list. Reading backward, for example, we see that “in a fulfilling career” actually answers where the work will be found, and “of earning a college education and finding work in a fulfilling career” pinpoints the specific expectations of the mother.
Commas alone cannot serve as a correct method for joining two independent clauses in one sentence
- Commas separate items in a list.
- Commas set off introductory material and non-essential details.
- Commas also introduce quoted text and divide the parts of addresses and dates.
Commas, however, do not serve as the proper punctuation indicating where two independent clauses are joined in the same sentence. Such a misuse of the comma is known as a comma splice error. Note these examples.
“In the 1964 film adaptation of Mary Poppins, Bert is played by Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews performs the part of Mary.”
“Jennifer is on her way to the store to purchase plates, napkins, plasticware, and cups, she is hosting a cookout Friday night.”
“My toddler’s nap time is 1 p.m., he usually sleeps for about two hours.”
Each of these sentences as currently shown represents a comma splice. A comma by itself is incorrectly placed at the point where the two independent clauses meet. If the writer deems that each clause could stand independently from the other one, then following are some correct ways of noting that relationship correctly in these sentences.
“In the 1964 film adaptation of Mary Poppins, Bert is played by Dick Van Dyke; Julie Andrews performs the part of Mary.”
“Jennifer is on her way to the store to purchase plates, napkins, plasticware, and cups, for she is hosting a cookout Friday night.”
“My toddler’s nap time is 1 p.m., and he usually sleeps for about two hours.”
The first example shows that a semicolon is the correct mark to note the end of the first independent clause and the start of another one in the same sentence. The remaining statements exemplify the use of a comma coupled with a coordinating conjunction to properly shift to the next point and indicate how the two clauses are related.
In summary, commas contribute to the structure within a sentence, consequently helping readers interpret the sentence’s intent. Commas haphazardly placed create the opposite effect—confusion and possible distortion of the message.
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