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On commas and nuns

Q: In “Shattered Glass,” a movie about a New Republic journalist who fabricated stories, the magazine’s editor says commas should always appear in pairs. Is this true?

A: Nope. It’s no more true than the myth that nuns always appear in pairs.

I didn’t see the film and I don’t know what Martin Peretz, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, actually thinks about punctuation. But the truth is that commas can appear in ones, twos, threes, etc. It all depends on how they’re being used.

You might use one, for example, to separate two clauses: “Tina hadn’t left the city for months, and by Friday she was climbing the walls.”

You’d need more than one (in this case three) to separate a series of things or actions: ”She packed a toothbrush, a hair dryer, her swimsuit, and her teddy bear.”

You might indeed use a pair of commas around the name of somebody being addressed: “Hey, Mom, how are you doing?” But you’d need only one comma if the person was at the beginning or end of the sentence: “Goodbye, Mom.”

You might also use a pair of commas with a nonrestrictive (or “which”) clause in the middle of a sentence: “His hat, which blew off in the wind, landed in the gutter.” But if the clause isn’t in the middle of the sentence, then only one comma is needed: “In the gutter he found his hat, which had blown off in the wind.”

Commas are also used before or after a quotation, after an introductory phrase, and around an aside. For more, check out the “Comma Sutra” chapter in my grammar book Woe Is I.

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