Commas before ‘and’ …

Up the garden path − or, why a fanboy comma is your friend

The comma is a valuable punctuation device because it separates the structural elements of sentences into manageable segments.

The Rule:

Use commas to separate independent clauses (that is, a part of a sentence that can stand on its own) when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The acronym of this list of conjunctions is FANBOYS, so these commas are known as FANBOYS commas.

The game was over, and she was exhausted.

The sentence above is short and clear, so the comma is not really necessary. But in longer sentences, this comma really helps to avoid ambiguity:

Without the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Without the comma, this sentence could easily read as:

The study noticed … general reluctance … and criticism.

This is being ‘led up the garden path’. A reader should be able to stay with the author of a sentence for the whole trip, without having to double back and re-read to make sense out of the material. In the above example, the reader has to wait until they get to ‘tended’ to realise that ‘criticism’ is actually the beginning of the second clause, not the end of the first one.

With the FANBOY comma:

The study noticed a general reluctance to relinquish control of those services already delivered locally, and criticism of externally provided services tended towards the hypercritical.

Now it’s clearer that the sentence is really two sentences:

1. The study noticed … general reluctance.

2. Criticism … tended towards the hypercritical.

The comma alerts the reader that, in effect, a new sentence is starting. The reader will process ‘criticism’ as the first word in the new sentence, not as the second item in the list of things noticed in the study.

The Style:

There’s a comma called the Oxford, or serial comma, which comes before the last ‘and’ in a list:

The government works for voters, non-voters, and donkey voters.

There is no clear grammatical rule about whether to use this comma or not – it is a question of style.

In Australian style this comma is usually not used, except where it is required to avoid ambiguity:1

They should seek the support of landholders, philanthropists, government, and community and industry groups.

Here, ‘community and industry groups’ functions as the last item in the list. A comma has been placed before this last item to ensure that ‘community’ stays in the reader’s mind as an adjective for ‘groups’.

The serial comma is used more in American style than in British style (except, of course, at Oxford University Press, after which it is named), but there is by no means consensus. Wikipedia2 has a detailed explanation of who prescribes and proscribes its use, as well as many examples of how it is used to avoid ambiguity.

Other resources:

[1] Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual: For authors, editors and printers, 6th Edn. John Wiley & Sons, Australia. p. 102.

Dangling modifiers

Misplaced modifiers, like the omission of a FANBOY comma, can lead you up the garden path. The problem is that you think you are saying one thing, and the reader thinks something else entirely.

A modifier says something extra about something. So in the phrase ‘the red car’, the word ‘red’ modifies the word ‘car’. Modifiers are usually adjectives (the red car) or adverbs (she sneezed loudly), but whole phrases can function as modifiers.

Introductory modifying phrases modify the subject of the main clause. For example: ‘Walking in to the hospital, patients will see the admissions desk first.’

Who is walking in to the hospital? The patients.

The example in the photo above is the same structure, but something is wrong. Two things that can go wrong with modifiers are that they can be misplaced or dangling. A misplaced modifier is describing something other than what the author intended to describe, but something which is present in the sentence:

The woman signed the paper with the pale face.

The phrase ‘with the pale face’ should be modifying ‘the woman’, but because it’s closest to ‘the paper’ it sounds as if the paper has a pale face. This should be:

The woman with the pale face signed the paper.

A dangling modifier is one that isn’t present at all in the sentence:

While walking in to the house, the telephone rang.

This sounds as if the telephone was walking into the house. But there’s a missing agent here: who was walking into the house? A person, presumably; the point is, the modifier is left ‘dangling’ because it can’t find anything to attach itself to. Let’s supply the agent:

While walking in to the house, the woman heard the telephone ring.

In the example in the photo above, the question is: Who is a family company? And the answer according to the way it’s currently written is ‘the eggs’. This should be re-written to read: ‘Being a family company, we ensure these eggs are produced …’.

Here are some links to more information about dangling and misplaced modifiers: