Tag Archives: punctuation

Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.


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The Bad Commas of Eats, Shoots and Leaves


Before I write anything else, let me state that I like Lynn Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It is funny, and it has a few good pointers on punctuation. However, she follows the “do as I say, not as I do” school of grammar instruction. 

If you read Eats, Shoots and Leaves for the rules and guidelines she espouses, you’ll do fine. However, if you read it to immerse yourself in clear, consistent, and accurate writing that exemplifies good punctuation use, you may be confused. 

Commas with Introductory Descriptions 

We can find many cases of inconsistent usage, such as Truss’s use of a comma when she starts sentences with nowadays, as follows: 

Nowadays, the convention for starting a new sentence with a capital letter…. (p. 23)
Nowadays the fashion is against grammatical fussiness. (p. 95)
Nowadays we write…. (p. 187) 

The first example is correct. We put a comma after introductory adverbial descriptions, including nowadays. (Introductory = before the subject; adverbial = modifies or describes the main verb in some way) This follows Zen Comma Rule G: Put a comma after introductory clauses and phrases.  Continue reading

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Use the Serial Comma


Commas in Series
  1. The toy was red [comma] round [comma] and heavy.
  2. I purchased pickles at the store [comma] gas at the convenience store [comma] and flowers at the florist for my beautiful wife.

RULE A:
Separate every item in a series with a comma.

Series: A series is a string of three or more matching items in a sentence. For example, the series in sample 1 contains three items: red, round, and heavy. The series in sample 2 also contains three items.

Take a look at sample 1 and see how the commas fit the rule. The first item is red, and it is separated from round by a comma. The second item is round, and it is separated from red and heavy by commas. Every item in the series is separated from the other items by commas.

The Zen Comma Master

Koan 1: Bumbo approached the teacher and said, “Teacher, I was taught not to use the comma before the word and. Is that true?” The teacher replied, “Newspapers.”

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The Power of Three


I recently read The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. The book tells the first-person story of Peekay, a young, white boy of British descent growing up in South Africa prior to and during WWII. Peekay learns about racism and self-respect, tribal lore and Christianity, and playing the piano and raising cacti, all while on a personal journey to become the world welterweight boxing champion. He develops his own personal philosophy, which he calls the “power of one,” to help him focus on his future goals, endure current hardships, and influence those around him.

threestooges“What does this have to do with writing?” you might be asking about now. Good question. We could summarize The Power of One as a book about purpose, strategy, and influence, and these are very important concepts in writing and editing.

Purpose is what you are trying to accomplish, i.e., your reason for writing. Strategy is how you go about accomplishing your purpose. Influence is the effect of your writing on your reader or target audience. Influence, or the ability to affect your reader in some way, should be the result of combining purpose with strategy. In writing, we call this Impact. While Peekay relies on the “power of one,” in writing we use the “power of three” as one strategy to create impact. Continue reading

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