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Essential, but Is It Important?
Commas are tricky little devils. Anyone who wants to use them correctly will at some point encounter the terms essential and nonessential. The rule is that so-called essential elements should not be enclosed in commas. Conversely, nonessential elements require commas fore
By “elements” we mean clauses, phrases, and even single words. Today we will focus on the difference between essential and nonessential clauses
(a clause always contains a subject and verb).
Consider this sentence: People who stay out in the sun too long get a bad case of sunburn. Note the lack of commas. That’s because the
clause who stay out in the sun too long is essential. Without it the sentence is silly: People get a bad case of sunburn.
Look at what happens if we fence off the essential clause with commas: People, who stay out in the sun too long, get a bad case of sunburn. The
commas isolate people from the clause that explains which people we are talking about. That’s as misguided as writing The book, I’m reading, is good.
Now look at this sentence: Barton Blain, who once threw a punch at the mayor, ate corn flakes for breakfast. Unlike people in the
previous paragraph, Barton Blain is already specifically identified. That makes the clause who once threw a punch at the mayor
nonessential, requiring commas.
Do not be distracted by this usage of essential and nonessential. That Blain assaulted an elected official is certainly
surprising, even alarming, but it is not essential in the grammatical sense; it is added information, and its removal would not alter the
sentence’s basic point: that Blain had corn flakes for breakfast. Maybe the writer was being grimly humorous, or was trying to shock us, or—who
knows? Our only concern here is that the writer correctly used commas to set off a nonessential clause.
So anyone who would master comma usage must realize that the terms essential and nonessential have nothing to do with values or ethics
and everything to do with making a sentence say what its author intends.
Because of the e-newsletter’s large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com’s “Grammar Blog.”
Are the following sentences punctuated properly? Answers are at the end of the newsletter.
1. The carpenter, who fixed our floor, is the one I’d recommend.
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel.
3. A ten-year-old girl, who doesn’t obey her parents, is headed for trouble.
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Here is another installment from the "Grandiloquent Dictionary," a collection of some of the most obscure and rare words in the English language.
misopedist: one who hates children
noctivagant: to roam about at night or to wander around while asleep
odontalgia: a toothache
plenilune: the time of the full moon
Pop Quiz Answers
1. The carpenter who fixed our floor is the one I’d recommend. (remove commas)
2. I’m talking about Derek Jones who climbed Mount Whitney, not Derek Jones who swam the English Channel. (CORRECT)
3. A ten-year-old girl who doesn’t obey her parents is headed for trouble. (remove commas)
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.