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Daily Pilot

A Word, Please: Comma-sense rules for the New Year

By June Casagrande

8:03 PM PST, January 4, 2013

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Remember boredom? Your No. 1 cause of unbearable suffering before you got your driver's license and fake I.D.?

If you're like most adults, your boredom has gone the way of acne and 24-inch waistbands. Except for one very special time of year.

Right after the holidays, when the stress of shopping for pre-indulged kids and cooking for judgmental in-laws is behind you, there comes a brief period of blissful boredom. It's a time to curl up with a mountain of stale snickerdoodles and listen to the test pattern hum between your ears as you stare comatose at a blank wall.

Or better yet, you could numb your brain completely by reading about commas.

If that brand of extreme-boredom-seeking sounds like just the ticket, these random facts about commas are for you.

Compare these two sentences: My sister Diane will be there. My husband, Ted, will be there. Wondering which one is punctuated correctly? They both are. (Plus, to the trained eye, they reveal two pretty boring facts about my personal life: 1. I have more than one sister. 2. I have only one husband.)

Commas are used to set off what's called "nonessential" or "nonrestrictive" information. Restrictive information is any word or phrase that narrows down a noun. So, for someone who has more than one sister, the words "my sister" refer to a range of possible subjects. Adding a name at the end literally narrows that range. It restricts the number of people to whom "my sister" might refer. So the name Diane in this case is restrictive information.

Because I have just one husband, the name Ted doesn't add any further specificity to the noun phrase "my husband." So Ted is nonrestrictive — extra information, a parenthetical tidbit, an aside. That's why it's set off with commas.

Here's another not-so-exciting fact about the comma: It should be used with something called a "direct address."

A direct address is anything you call someone, be it a name or a term like "sir," "ma'am," "dude," "gorgeous," etc. So when you write, "Excuse me, sir," "Hello, gorgeous," "Listen up, bub" or "Later, Paula," a comma should always separate the name or other direct address from the rest of the sentence.

Technically, this means that perhaps 90% of all email greetings are wrong. People like to punctuate greetings with a comma after the name, but not before: Hey Jane, Hello Paul, Hi Carrie — that's the form I see the most. But according to the direct address comma rule, it's wrong.

I suspect that people confuse the form "Dear Jane," with the form "Hey, Jane." They know that "Dear Jane," has its lone comma after the name. So they apply the same rule when they swap out "hello" for "dear." But "dear" is an adjective and "hello" is not. You don't put a comma between an adjective and its noun (as in "a brown dog" or "a nice person").

Also, "Dear Jane" isn't a complete sentence, so it makes sense to integrate it into the first sentence of an email by putting a comma after Jane.

Conversely, "Hello" is a complete thought that can be punctuated as a complete sentence. So when I begin an email with a greeting word like "Hello" followed by a direct address like "Jane," I usually put a comma before the name and a period after the name: "Hello, Jane."

Finally, here's one more not-too-exciting fact about commas: When you have one before a state, date, year or Inc., you need one after. "Monday, Feb. 14, is just around the corner." "We will visit Cheyenne, Wyo., this year." "Widgets, Inc., is a great company." "Dec. 27, 2012, was bliss."

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.