Top 20 Grammar Errors: no comma in a non-restrictive element

My Weekend
Or: why I didn’t do my homework

So this weekend: total bust. Horrible, horrible time of it.  And it’s my blog, so I’m entitled to cry a little bit if I want to. Or at least make excuses as to why I haven’t moved on to grammar error number five in the top twenty grammar errors. Number five, by the way, is the no comma in non-restrictive element, which we will get into in just a bit. Hang on. 

It was such a terrible weekend I even missed posting my Sunday usual: This Week in Literature, and this one is a fun one. It’s about an ambulance driver and a wizard, which you will see tagged onto the bottom of today’s grammar error.

Let’s just say that if you’ve chatted me up enough on Facebook, you’ll know that I deliver pizzas. My van began to misfire. So, I did what anyone would do. I called an auto mechanic and asked how much for a spark plug change. The mechanic told me around $150, $200 and it’d be two weeks out before he could get to me. So, I did it myself. I got the opportunity to purchase tools. I haven’t had tools since I left Ohio, so the whole ordeal was kind of exciting. Then, Friday, the van started misfiring again. Not only misfiring, but rumbling like it was going to die on me whenever I paused at a stop sign or actually came to a full stop at those pesky red lights (I deliver pizzas—stop signs are only suggestions, right?) So, yesterday’s conclusion: I didn’t tighten the spark plugs all the way in. Or, my coil pack is going out. Or, my fuel pump. Or my transmission. Or my air filter is filled with gunk. Also yesterday, hit a nail with bald tires. The tire is shredded. And…where did my tire blow-out happen? In front of a competing pizzeria. Where did I change that tire? Yep, you guessed it.

Anyway, much better story than “my dog ate it.”

Same Bat Channel
So the last time we met, we examined wrong word choice. Today, let’s look at no comma in a non-restrictive element, number five on the top 20 grammar errors.

But Batman, holy grammarian, what’s a non-restrictive element?

If we revisit Strunk and White, the original terminology was non-restrictive relative clause. Why they keep changing the terms, whoever they are, is beyond me. But because I am older, and grew up on the original terms, I try to include the original terms so that those who are like me can slap their foreheads and go, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about.”

I include the new terminology because 1) it’s what all the cool grammarians are doing and 2) I’ll be teaching this stuff on a one-on-one basis at the University of Wyoming in about six and half weeks.

On With The Show

Here, check out this diagramed sentence:

 

A non-restrictive element is a word, phrase, or clause that provides extra but unnecessary information.

Notice, I did not say unneeded information.

In the above diagrammed sentence, the non-restrictive element is whoever they are. Let’s rewrite the sentence:

Why they keep changing the terms is beyond me.

What happened to the meaning of the sentence? Well, nothing really. Both sentences mean the same thing: somebody keeps changing grammar terms. However, in the second version of the sentence, you lose that conspiracy –theorist flavor.

The Rule

The rule is simple. Anytime you have a non-restrictive element, set the element off with commas (and whatever you do, don’t set off the non-restrictive with a parenthetical).

Anything that you think should go in parentheses actually goes inside a set of commas. Period. End of discussion. Just like you should never use fragments—which is number 12 on the list of the top twenty grammar errors.

So right. Don’t use parentheses, always use commas. Always use commas for a non-restrictive element. There are people out there who are going to tell you different. Bonnie Trenga of Grammar Girl says it’s okay to use parentheses. And Richard Nordquist of About.com says that commas are only used most of the time with non-restrictive elements. I, however, refer you to Mr. Strunk again, (who I believe trumps all).

Breathe
Take a breath because if you didn’t already notice I broke a lot of grammar rules above and just now in this very sentence that you are reading at this moment.

Why?

Hopefully, one of the most important aspects I want to convey in this blog series is, that it is okay to break the rules, just know why and to what effect upon the reader you are breaking the rule.

Also, all of this comma usage can be confusing. It certainly can be confusing for me at times, but remember way back to the number one grammar error—no comma after the introductory element? Remember my discussion of natural breaths? Commas are where readers take breaths, and though not always accurate, a comma for a breath is still a good bet.

And finally…

This Week in Literature

  • On July 8, 1918, 18-year-old ambulance driver for the American Red Cross Ernest Hemingway was struck by a mortar shell while serving on the Italian front, along the Piave delta in World War I. Hemingway’s experiences in WWI led to much of the material found in his novel A Farewell to Arms, which chronicles the love of a young American ambulance driver for a beautiful English nurse on the Italian front during WWI.
  • A month after starting the diary she had begun writing on her 14th birthday, Anne Frank and her family, along with four other Jews, went into hiding on July 9, 1942 in the warehouse behind her father’s business in Amsterdam.
  • On July 10th, Gandalf is imprisoned in Orthanc, and in 1873 Paul Verlaine shot Arthur Rimbaud in a Brussels hotel, wounding him in the wrist. The couple was in such turmoil of sexual, emotional, financial and absinthe confusion that there really was no specific motive and the Belgian courts gave Verlaine the maximum two-year sentence.

 

Steve Bargdill is the author of The Wasteland Series available on Amazon. He’s written for several newspapers and is currently a first year English graduate student at the University of Wyoming. You can read his short stories for free on Wattpad. To receive Monday evening writing prompts, daily morning poetry, hump day videos and the most current updates on upcoming books by Steve, like his page on Facebook!

 

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