Where Have All The Commas Gone?

The joys of the parenthetical comma

(Voice of police dispatcher): “Calling all cars! Calling all cars! Be on the lookout for escaped commas. Last seen after years that follow dates, and after state names that follow cities. Can be recognized by their downward curves. Please recapture and replace immediately. Reward is clarity of meaning.”

We’re talking about a parenthetical comma, which sets off information: “She was born July 20, 1995, and went to school in Springfield, Ill., where she graduated at the top of her eighth-grade class.” The loss of all those commas may not be a crime, but it certainly is a mystery.

The parenthetical comma isn’t an optional comma. It serves two purposes: the first is to set off the year/state from the date, and the second is to set off the year/state from the rest of the sentence. Without it, readers can be momentarily distracted into thinking that the year/state is part of phrase by which it is followed.

Here are some examples. Not too long ago, a CNN news crawl read: “A judge in Alexandria, Virginia ruled yesterday that …” Was the judge in Alexandria named Virginia? Of course not. (We will not discuss why CNN chose not to abbreviate Virginia in this case.) And the cornerstone laid at the base of the Freedom Tower at ground zero reads: “To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom.” In both cases, the first comma, following the city and date, is missing its mate, which is supposed to follow the extra information of the state and year.

So far, I have not found a single grammar book, style guide, or other advisory that approves the omission of that second comma. And much of the time, that comma is missing even if followed by an independent clause that would have been set off by a comma anyway. Yet time and again, in court documents, news stories, and books—not to mention granite—that comma has gone missing.

If anyone has an explanation for this phenomenon, please forward it. And if you recognize yourself, please turn yourself in, and reward your readers.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.