From Comma-kazi to Comma-Sutra: Or You Too Can Learn to Love Commas

By Lynette Kirschner

Pho­to cred­it: NASA God­dard MODIS Rapid Response Team

Gram­mar doesn’t tend to be a top­ic that stu­dents are enthused about. When­ev­er I men­tion it, many of my stu­dents roll their eyes. To real­ly get a non-reac­tion, all I have to do is men­tion punc­tu­a­tion and their eyes glaze over. Not a pret­ty sight. How­ev­er, gram­mar – and more impor­tant­ly punc­tu­a­tion – is essen­tial, so I have tried many ways to make this top­ic clear and interesting.

There is always humor, which will catch their atten­tion, but most like­ly not clar­i­fy the fin­er points of punc­tu­a­tion. The famous com­ma for can­ni­bals quote (“Let’s eat grand­pa” as opposed to the more humane “Let’s eat, grand­pa”) can make stu­dents smile once they under­stand. So now I have more of their atten­tion. But that is just the beginning. 

Atten­tion, alas, doesn’t guar­an­tee suc­cess. I have tried list­ing the most com­mon com­ma rules used and explain­ing in detail with exam­ples as to how and why these rules are used. The result is for stu­dents to com­ma-kazi or as the Urban Dic­tio­nary defines it:


The result could be called com­ma overkill, and in a way, it is a pos­i­tive sign that stu­dents are at least lis­ten­ing and try­ing. This, how­ev­er, doesn’t guar­an­tee suc­cess. Anoth­er time I tried to get stu­dents to active­ly apply the rules in a cre­ative way. One stu­dent did an inter­ac­tive com­ma quiz that was well received by the class. Iron­i­cal­ly this stu­dent “cov­fefed” on the final task and end­ed up com­ma-kaz­ing on the write up.

Anoth­er option is a bit more dras­tic. Even though threats are sel­dom help­ful, it still is tempt­ing to use death by com­ma argu­ment. In 1916 Sir Roger Case­ment was hanged, par­tial­ly due to a dis­crep­an­cy about the cor­rect com­ma place­ment in a legal doc­u­ment. The tru­ly des­per­ate instruc­tor can there­fore point out that peo­ple have lit­er­al­ly been hanged on a com­ma. Nowa­days stu­dents’ grades – but not their lives – could pos­si­bly suf­fer the same fate…

Per­haps stu­dents just aren’t aware of the impor­tance of com­mas. Humor didn’t seem to work, nei­ther did active appli­ca­tion and death grade threats just sim­ply aren’t an option. Thanks to a news arti­cle in The New York Times, I have now found one very moti­vat­ing rea­son for my stu­dents: mon­ey. Due to Oakhurst Dairy’s ambigu­ous use of the ser­i­al or Oxford com­ma, the com­pa­ny could have to pay up to 10 mil­lion dol­lars in over­time. This brings home the point about being very clear about com­ma usage. If you are inter­est­ed in the gram­mat­i­cal details of the Oakhurst mis­ad­ven­ture, Gram­mar Girl pro­vides an enlight­en­ing take on “The $10 Mil­lion Comma.”

Using the mon­ey angle to prove the impor­tance of prop­er com­ma usage inspired a change in my approach: less is more. Basi­cal­ly, I ana­lyze the type of com­ma mis­takes that my class­es com­mon­ly make before I teach the com­ma rules. Since most of my class­es tend to have homoge­nous Ger­man native speak­ers, it was eas­i­er for me to dis­cov­er the two main per­pe­tra­tors: depen­dent claus­es using sub­or­di­nat­ing con­junc­tions (because, since, although and co.) and dass (that). In these cas­es, the native lan­guage func­tions in over­ride and dis­places the Eng­lish com­ma rules. I now con­cen­trate on explain­ing the pre­cise way to cor­rect this over­ride error for these two points only and prac­tice this. Many times. Quite often. Amaz­ing­ly, this will clear up any­where between 20–40% of the com­ma mis­takes for most stu­dents. Phe­nom­e­nal! Every­one is hap­py and enjoys the feel­ing of success.

It’s very doubt­ful that my stu­dents will ever learn to love com­mas or even think they are sexy in a “com­ma-sutra” way, but at least they don’t hate them and their eyes tend not to glaze over… as much. As an Eng­lish instruc­tor you may at times sound pedan­tic or be con­sid­ered a stick­ler about these obscure lin­guis­tic arti­facts, but mon­ey talks and, in this case, maybe it can even ‘buy’ love.

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Lynette Kirschn­er is a lec­tur­er at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in Ger­man Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture. She likes all things strange, dif­fer­ent, and off beat and often lets her stu­dents get geeky in class.