Lend Your Commas a Hand–or Two

Next time you wonder whether to use one comma or two to set off a word or phrase in the middle of a sentence, imagine reaching in and lifting that word or phrase out with both hands. Does the sentence still make sense? If so, lower the text back in, and put commas in place of your hands.

For example, you need both commas in all of these sentences:

  • Fruit flies, for example, can breed up to ten times an hour.
  • The TV, however, sat idle.
  • The house that Sandee likes, the one with the striped curtains and the funny gargoyle on the second story, went up for sale last week.

With certain types of words, the second comma goes missing especially often. For example, even though most style guides would call for commas on each side of the following bolded words (right where you’d put your hands), many writers would use only the first comma.

  • Macy’s, Inc., made headlines today.
  • The plane will land in Portland, Maine, right on time.
  • Rodney, Jr., has a birthday coming up.
  • The letter dated January 2, 1987, changed George’s life.

I’m not sure why second commas get omitted so often. Leaving out half of a comma pair is like leaving out a parenthesis. You wouldn’t do that (would you?

6 thoughts on “Lend Your Commas a Hand–or Two

  1. Is there any credibility to the “if your audience needs an explanation” theory? If my reader does not know that my best friend is Shelley, I should leave her name as a main part of the sentence: My best friend Shelley is coming to visit this weekend. But if my reader knows that Shelley is my best friend, her name is now not necessary, therefore set expendably inside commas: My best friend, Shelley, is coming to visit this weekend. I’m interested in your thoughts.

    • Wendy, You’ve come up with the perfect example sentence for this question. I like your term “expendably.”

      A person can have only one best friend, so in the following sentence, the name is lift-out-able (expendable, incidental) regardless of what your reader knows. You use commas to say, “by the way.”

      My best friend, Shelley, is coming to visit.

      On the other hand, if the name clarifies which friend you’re talking about, it is not lift-out-able. It’s restrictive, essential, defining, limiting. You use no commas.

      My friend Shelley is coming to visit.

      Thanks for this question, which was begging to be asked.

  2. Love it, Marcia. A memorable visual metaphor that creates a positive emotional charge about an often pesky issue. Easy to remember and retrieve. K

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