Wilbers: Pay uncommon care to the use of the humble comma

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2012 - 6:50 PM

I realize it might not seem fair for a columnist appearing in the Star Tribune to pick on the Wall Street Journal, but I'm going to do it anyway.

Before I do, however, I want to acknowledge that anyone can make a grammatical error. I admit I've let a few slip by me over the years. Nobody's perfect.

Even so, when you write an article about grammar gaffes invading the office in an age of informal communication, you should make sure you haven't made any gaffes yourself. Here's the offending sentence: "Many [managers] attribute slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter where slang and shortcuts are common."

As you can see, the error is inexcusable, shocking and deplorable.

Imagine visiting a company website and seeing this sentence: "We guarantee first-rate service which we offer at an affordable price."

You would be dismayed to have encountered yet another example of declining language skills, a sure sign that our civilization was on the road to disaster. You certainly wouldn't trust the company to offer "first-rate service."

Or imagine you wanted to take out a mortgage to buy that house in your favorite part of town, and one of the dozen banks falling over itself to lend you money sent you a letter containing this sentence: "You can count on XYZ Bank which is a neighborhood institution to treat you fairly."

You certainly wouldn't do business with that bank, even if it meant paying a higher mortgage rate at another institution. After all, principles are principles, especially principal principles.

How is it, you might ask yourself, that so many writers, even a writer for the Wall Street Journal, don't know when to use commas with nonrestrictive clauses? As you and I know, it's a basic rule of grammar.

When a clause is essential to the meaning of a sentence, we call it "restrictive" because it "restricts," limits or defines the thing it refers to, as in "I ate the key lime pie that John Smith made; I didn't eat the key lime pie that Sue Shellenbarger made." Here the two restrictive that clauses identify which pie is in question. Because they are essential, restrictive clauses take no commas. (In the example above, no commas appear before that.)

When a clause is nonessential to the meaning of a sentence, we call it "nonrestrictive" because it merely describes rather than defines or restricts. If there were only one pie in the example above, the nonrestrictive clause would be marked with a comma: "I ate the key lime pie, which John Smith made."

Nonrestrictive commas would also appear in the following sentences:

"Many [managers] attribute slipping skills to the informality of email, texting and Twitter[,] where slang and shortcuts are common."

"We guarantee first-rate service[,] which we offer at an affordable price."

"You can count on XYZ Bank[,] which is a neighborhood institution[,] to treat you fairly."

Such a simple rule.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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