Avoid the Most Commonly Committed Comma Crimes: Eight Commandments

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From the loftiest law firms to the grandest judicial chambers, I see the same comma errors time and time again. In the name of consistency, and perhaps even sanity, consider committing to these Eight Comma Commandments.

1. Thou Shalt Include a Comma Before a Conjunction That Introduces an Independent Clause

Rule: Put a comma before a mid-sentence “and” or “but” if what follows could have been a sentence on its own. If what follows is just a phrase, a comma is optional but almost always unnecessary.

Comma here: I would love to take you on as a client, but my workload makes it impossible for me to do so right now.

  • But no comma needed here: I would love to take you on as a client but need to wait until I have more time.

Comma here: The Court denied summary judgment, and it also dismissed Count Two with prejudice.

  • But no comma needed here: The Court denied summary judgment and dismissed Count Two with prejudice.

2. Thou Shalt Not Insert Commas Around a Mid-Clause “Thus” or “Therefore”

So this: She is therefore inclined to postpone the meeting indefinitely.

And this: Underwriter’s Counsel thus rejected our proposal.

  • But not this: The Court should, therefore, grant summary judgment.

3. Thou Shalt Put Commas Around a Name Only When It Is the Sole Member of the Group

So this: My sister, Mary, is my only sibling.

And this: My sister Mary is my favorite sister.

4. Thou Shalt Include Commas in a Series of Adjectives Only When They Modify the Noun Separately

Hint: If you can add the word “and” between the adjectives, add commas.

So this: Under longstanding tort principles, you cannot get damages in this case unless you can first prove that the shopkeeper owed you a duty.

And this: Although it’s fashionable to attack lawyers, many of my colleagues have proved to be loyal, sincere friends.

  • But not this: This second opinion appears to comprise two, equally inadmissible components.

5. Thou Shalt Set Off Complete Dates With Commas, But Thou Shalt Not Insert a Comma Between a Month and a Year (Unless Thou Writest for The New Yorker)

So this: You have until May 1, 2014, to get back to us with your answer.

And this: I can tell you that February 2013 was a tough month for my firm.

  • But not this: I can tell you that February, 2013 was a tough month for my firm.

6. Thou Shalt Place Commas Inside Quotation Marks, Unless Thou Art in England or a Commonwealth Country, Art a Sworn Anglophile, or for Other Reasons Prefer British English

American: The Agreement uses the phrase “party of the first part,” but I have never really understood what that means.

  • British: The Agreement uses the phrase “party of the first part”, but I have never really understood what that means.
  • Exception: When the comma is part of the original quoted material, in British English the comma goes inside the quotation marks: America’s Second Amendment begins with the words, “A well-regulated Militia,” which in colonial times was considered to include the whole free adult male citizenry.

7. Thou Shalt Set Off Introductory Phrases With Commas

It’s true that in very simple sentences, you don’t need to set off introductory phrases with commas: Last Monday I went to the doctor. But a better rule for legal writers is to set off all such phrases with commas:

So this: To the best of my knowledge, California law does not allow you to sue on that basis.

And this: Each spring, our firm holds a meeting at an off-site location to discuss strategic plans for the next fiscal year.

  • But not this: With one exception my client never misrepresented the terms of the initial agreement.

Freebie: Avoid putting a comma after a coordinating conjunction at the start of a sentence.

So no comma after “But” here: I have a lot of thoughts on how to structure this deal. But I’ll need to get back to you on the tax implications.

  • Tip: To remember which words are coordinating conjunctions, just remember FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

8. Thou Shalt Include a Comma Before a Participle That Modifies an Entire Preceding Phrase or Clause and Avoid a Comma Before a Participle That Modifies Just the Preceding Noun

So this: Last week, I went to an interesting lecture making sense out of the financial crisis.

  • Rationale: The lecture itself is what made sense out of the 2008 financial crisis.

And this: Last week, I took your advice and attended an interesting lecture, making me wish that I followed your lead more often

  • Rationale: The whole experience of listening to your friend’s advice, and not just the lecture itself, is what made you wish that you took similar advice more often.

When it comes to following these rules, the benefits of consistency far outweigh the costs of rigidity. That said, as with all Commandments, good faith is probably enough!

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