Comma chameleon: How it changes the color of your meaning


The comma is such a little mark, but it can prompt big confusion—and heated debate—about its use.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in. (Believe me, we will not cover everything about commas here, but we’ll give it a shot.)

Compound sentences

A compound sentence comprises two independent clauses. Each clause has a subject and verb and could stand as a sentence unto itself. It takes a comma before the conjunction (and, but, or, etc.):

The dog barked at a cat, and the cat ran up a tree.

My uncle is sick, but the highway is green.

I can bring you along while I shop for shoes, or you can stay home and watch sports all day. (Decisions, decisions …)

In the following case, the dog is the subject of both verbs, so there should be no comma:

The dog barked at a cat but didn’t chase it. (You would use a comma if it were structured this way: The dog barked at a cat, but he didn’t chase it.)

Here we have modifying phrases for the cat. 

The dog barked at a cat, which then ran up a tree.
The dog barked at the cat that had run up the tree.

(Here, the modifying phrase specifies a particular cat. There may have been other cats, but the pooch barked at the one up the tree. No comma.)

Often we see commas misplaced in sentences with a complex predicate and a modifying phrase:

Wrong: The dog barked at the cat, and for no apparent reason, ate a cantaloupe.

Correct: The dog barked at the cat and, for no apparent reason, ate a cantaloupe.

(The reason is abundantly clear, of course; the dog is a melon collie.)

Then there is the dreaded comma splice. This occurs when two independent clauses are separated by a comma with no conjunction.

Wrong: The cat barked at the dog, it traumatized the poor pooch.

Either add a conjunction or substitute a semicolon; I prefer the latter.

The cat barked at the dog, and it traumatized the poor pooch.
The cat barked at the dog; it traumatized the poor pooch.

Noun of direct address

Set this off with a comma or two, depending on its placement in the sentence:

Xavier, I’ll be out of the office on Tuesday.

Please call me if anything urgent arises, Xavier.

I’ll be off Tuesday, Xavier, so please don’t do anything stupid in my absence.

Supplemental information

In the following casesthe last two are appositives—the information set off by a comma or commas is important content but not essential to the structure of the sentence:

Natalie, who does yoga every weekend, has never undergone major surgery.

Godfrey, an amateur taxidermist, has dreams about opening a cafe.

An accomplished xylophonist, Darryl frequently is asked to perform at funerals.

When setting off an appositive midsentence—such as a title or job description—don’t forget the second comma before proceeding with the predicate.

Descriptive versus identifying modifiers

My brother Jeremiah has a unicycle with training wheels. (This presupposes I have more than one brother.)

My sister, Calliope, enjoys writing heroic poetry and playing the steam organ. Here the commas indicate that I have only one sister.

The same follows for corporate writing:

Gloopnox Corp.’s director of marketing, Leonardo Gloopnox, has been with the company six weeks. He’s the company’s one and only marketing director. (He’s also the CEO’s son.)

Vexco marketing coordinator Lila Langerhans recently announced plans to tweeze her eyebrows. No commas if she’s one among several with that job designation.

Note, too, the following instances:

This summer I’ll be traveling to the city where I was born.
This summer I’ll be traveling to Walla Walla, where I was born.

The term “the city” needs amplification for the purposes of identification.“Walla Walla” could stand on its own, but the phrase that follows the commas delivers supplemental information.

[RELATED: Get advanced writing and editing tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela.]

Dependent clauses

Here we have instances of a dependent clause that precedes and modifies an independent clause:

If  I win the lottery, I’ll send my whole family to Europe—one-way.

Because the smell of maple syrup makes me queasy, I avoid going into pancake houses.

After Melvin detained Gregory and caused him to be late for his shift in the coal shaft, Melvin was accused of contributing to the delinquency of a miner.

How about the following?

In 2009 the senator voted to filibuster on 53 occasions.  In 2005, that same senator called filibusters “obstructionist.”

Why the comma in the second instance?  I suppose it’s a judgment call, but to my mind it emphasizes a contradiction in the senator’s two positions; it’s shorthand for “however.”

Certainly, one might just add “however” and make it explicit:

In 2005, however, that same senator called filibusters “obstructionist.”

The series

What follows is a long yet simple series; commas alone can do the job:

I went shopping for eggs, coaxial cable, an electric pencil sharpener, macadamia nuts, a lathe, a pocket calculator, three pounds of figs, a post hole digger, radicchio and a pewter corkscrew. 

In the following, there is a series of series, so, for the sake of clarity, the groupings are set off with semicolons:

I went shopping for eggs, radicchio, macadamia nuts and three pounds of figs for tonight’s dinner; a post hole digger, coaxial cable and a lathe for some weekend projects; and a pocket calculator, an electric pencil sharpener and a pewter corkscrew to bring to work. (A corkscrew? Judge not, lest ye be judged.)

A series of modifiers

The modifiers can be adverbs:

Garth hastily, sloppily, noisily ate his papaya and smelt sandwich. (“And” could sub in for that second comma, if you like.)

They can also be adjectives:

Maximilian is a loud, uncouth, malodorous, vindictive philatelist.

At least he has a hobby.

There are three fat, brown, male dachshunds on the porch.

In this sentence, note that the more elemental the trait, the closer it is to what it modifies. The number is most easily changed—pick up a dachshund (at your peril, of course)—and remove it, and the number changes. The doggies could lose weight; that’s a variable, too. Brown—well, some pet salons do perform dye jobs. But even if neutered, a male dog remains a he.

Also note that no comma is placed between the number and the other modifiers. In some election stories, you might see this: Five candidates are vying for three, three-year seats on the council. That comma after three is no more necessary than it is in the sentence about the dachshunds.

Also notice that in this sentence from before—But even if a male dog is neutered, he remains a he.—there is no comma immediately after “But.” 

Some people prefer the serial or Harvard comma; some abhor it. Generally it’s unnecessary with a simple series. Garner’s Modern American Usage recommends it: “… omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.” In business writing, it can come in handy, particularly when the series at hand includes compound elements:

Please notify the people in charge of security, operations, IT, legal affairs, internal and external communications, employee recruitment and retention, research and development and marketing and advertising.

Adding a comma after “development” eliminates potential ambiguity about the number and descriptions of the last entities mentioned.

Please notify the people in charge of security, operations, IT, legal affairs, internal and external communications, employee recruitment and retention, research and development, and marketing and advertising.

Do you come across such contrivances often (other than in articles about punctuation, that is)?  Probably not. When you do, diverting from established style for the sake of clarity is fine. You’d rather hear the question, “Egad! Why is Magdalena diverting from her established style on serial commas?” than, “What in heaven’s name is Magdalena talking about?”

An either/or question

Do you want what Jay has in the box, or what’s behind the curtain where Carol Merrill is standing?

Without the comma, you could answer, “yes”—meaning you want either of those things.

With the comma, the mandate to choose between the options is implicit: Do you want what Jay has in the box, or [do you want] what’s behind the curtain where Carol Merrill is standing?

Quoted matter

There’s a difference in the way generic and specific utterances are handled, as is shown below:

“All I want in response is a simple ‘yes, sir’ or ‘no, sir,’” Adele said.

“When I ask you if you’d like more tiramisu, just say, ‘No, thank you, sir,’” Adele told Vincent.

Sometimes you’ll have a quotation that looks like this: “I’m drowsy,” Susie said. “And no amount of coffee seems to help.”

Susie’s statement is a compound sentence, and it should be treated as such: “I’m drowsy,” Susie said, “and no amount of coffee seems to help.”
It must be all this pedantry about commas. Susie’s nearly comma-tose.

OK, we’re almost done.

Addresses and dates, cities and states

Mr. Brady went to a party at 148 Bonny Meadow Road, New Rochelle, N.Y.

Oh, what a night I had in December 1963. (No comma between the month and year if a day is not specified.)

On Feb. 29, 2000, I told Randall to take a flying leap. 

Velma drove to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then to Altoona, Pa.

In letters

Unless you are writing a formal letter, in which you would use a colon at the end of the salutation — Dear Sir or Madam: or To the Editor: — you would use a comma after the recipient’s name:

Dear Mephistopheles, 

At the end of the letter, a comma would come after the signoff and before your name:

Eternally yours,

Learn more about commas from Rob Reinalda and Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty in their upcoming Webcast, “Supercharge your content: Writing and Editing essentials from Grammar Girl and Word Czar“: 

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How The Chameleon Effect Can Boost Your Social Media Succes


Every once in a while you run across a spectacular social media idea only to find that it was hatched in a sector completely different from your own. You may be small business and the case study is about health care. Instead of passing it by, you can apply a few simple tactics that can transfer that ingenious idea to your brand.

Remember that little lizard called a chameleon—I had one as a kid. The cool thing about the chameleon is that it changes colors depending on its surroundings. Put him on a blade of grass and he turns green. Put him on a branch and he turns brown. That’s exactly what you need to do with social media content when you run across something that makes you say, “I wish we could do that.”

In order to be a chameleon, you need to identify some key principles about what you’re trying to copy from a different sector:

1. What is the purpose of this campaign/tactic?

2. What are the main benefits to the fans?

3. What elements are involved that would work in any sector?

Case In Point: The Rock Church #TrustIs campaign – San Diego, California

The Rock Church is a large non-denominational church in San Diego, California. Their social media is just as rockin’ as their music. They started out the month of January with a series of Sunday messages called “Trust Is.” In their lobby, there is a bigger than life hashtag (see below) next to a backdrop with various versions of the hashtag #TrustIs. Every week, church goers are encouraged to take pictures next to the hashtag and tweet their reflection on the trust question of the week using the hashtag. The tweets run on a big screen in their auditorium before the services start in addition to being aggregated on Twitter as a resource for the campaign. 

Be the Chameleon:

1. What is the purpose of this campaign/tactic?

The purpose of this campaign is to provide useful information that will help fans live a better life. Much like a product recommendation from a brand ambassador, the hashtag campaign offers a review of sorts that helps readers engage with the campaign’s message. When you offer solutions to common problems that people have, you build engagement/loyalty. When you strip away the sector influence of the campaign (in this case a church), and insert your own sector, you find you can easily transfer this idea to events of any kind. If you’ve got an event or campaign that uses a hashtag, this is a great way to get fans to engage, whether they are at the venue or not.

2. What are the main benefits to the fans?

Information that helps them solve a problem, creates interest in the campaign, and gives brand ambassadors a chance to share their affinity. 

3. What elements are involved that would work in any sector?

Hashtags are popular everywhere—especially at events. If you’re a sports team for instance, what a cool way to have fans take pictures at the venue (maybe with the mascot). If you’re incorporating Tagboard or another in-venue social stream, this can boost your engagement at the game which ultimately sells more tickets.

Case In Point: The Rock Church Miles a Minute app – San Diego, California

The Rock Church has also developed an in-depth mobile app with one particular purpose: it’s a tool for their regulars to share with other people. The content is short and universal, aimed at introducing users to the church, the pastor, and giving nuggets of helpful information about tackling life challenges. The winning feature is that each story is only a minute long. The pastor, Miles McPherson, is good on camera and a good speaker. He produces most of the “minutes” himself with a phone at various locations around San Diego or on his travels—each one is a story. The app has a YouTube channel in addition to being on phones and devices. You can click on the graphic below to see the YouTube channel.

Be the Chameleon:

1. What is the purpose of this campaign/tactic?

The app is a tool to help brand ambassadors share the brand with non-fans by giving useful lifestyle information. Each 60-second message is a parable of sorts with lots of links on the app to entry-level information about the brand.

2. What are the main benefits to the fans?

Thought provoking ideas to help people live a better lifestyle, and be introduced to the brand through short stories.

3. What elements are involved that would work in any sector?

Stories. Problem-solving information. Interesting facts and trivia that get users thinking about the brand. This isn’t just some guy sitting at a desk telling you “come to the game” or “buy our stuff.” Its useful, and many times humorous, information draws non-fans into a relationship with the brand. Also included in the app is a wealth of information for users. But the interface is not clunky or overwhelming. Very good design.

Next time you run across a social media idea from a different sector, don’t write it off. Learn from it. If you can adopt a chameleon mindset, you can apply any great social media idea to your brand, no matter who you are, how big you are, or what resources you have. Tell us how you’ve used the Chameleon Effect. 

Authored by:

Chris Syme

Chris Syme’s newest book, Practice Safe Social, is a leading resource on how to use social media responsibly. Her agency, CKSyme Media Group specializes in crisis and reputation communications, training, and social media services. See her website Follow her on Twitter @cksyme

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