Three uses to preserve
I read a lot of legal writing, and I’ve begun to notice a decrease in three particular comma uses. Although I mostly read law-student writing, I’ve noticed these missing commas in some lawyer-written documents as well. (I should mention that I don’t believe that the writing skills of law students and young lawyers are in decline, and I’ll have more to say about that in another column.) In this column, I describe the three comma uses and advocate for saving those three commas.
1. Comma after introductory transition word
In professional writing, we generally place a comma after a sentence-beginning transition word. These words are also call “conjunctive adverbs.” They’re well-known, multi-syllabic transitions, like these: accordingly, additionally, certainly, consequently, conversely, finally, furthermore, however, in addition, incidentally, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, nonetheless, similarly, subsequently, therefore, thus, undoubtedly. Examples:
Wrong: However Rei requests that the fee amount not be disclosed to the public.
- Right: However, Rei requests that the fee amount not be disclosed to the public.
Wrong: Therefore the court rejected and dismissed all the petitions before it.
- Right: Therefore, the court rejected and dismissed all the petitions before it.
Wrong: Furthermore the illegal transaction occurred at Anton’s home.
- Right: Furthermore, the illegal transaction occurred at Anton’s home.
This comma sometimes goes missing. Maybe writers are aiming for speedy reading or better flow and are thinking that a comma will slow things down. (It can be appropriate to omit the comma after an opening thus.) But the decreased use might also be occurring because writers are forgetting the rule. Let’s save this comma.
2. Comma after introductory dependent clause
We should also place a comma after a sentence-beginning dependent clause. As a refresher, a clause is a group of words that has a subject and a verb. For this rule, we’re talking about dependent clauses, also called subordinate clauses: they have a subject and a verb, but they’re not independent clauses—they’re not complete sentences by themselves. Examples:
Wrong: Although both covenants began when the employment began they extended for different time periods.
- Right: Although both covenants began when the employment began, they extended for different time periods.
Wrong: If the conduct occurred in the scope of representation then the conduct is shielded.
- Right: If the conduct occurred in the scope of representation, then the conduct is shielded.
Wrong: Unless the court grants the petition for rehearing the original opinion is likely to stand.
- Right: Unless the court grants the petition for rehearing, the original opinion is likely to stand.
This comma is sometimes omitted. For this comma, I’m less inclined to think it’s about flow and more inclined to attribute the decreased use to forgetfulness or hasty editing. But its absence can cause miscues and impose re-reading. Let’s save this comma.
3. Comma before and after appositives
An appositive restates or renames a noun it follows, and here we’re technically talking about a nonrestrictive appositive—which requires a pair of commas. Examples:
Wrong: The defendant, Chris Lang did not hire a lawyer.
- Right: The defendant, Chris Lang, did not hire a lawyer.
Wrong: The vehicle in question, a red convertible with Louisiana plates was seen leaving the parking lot.
- Right: The vehicle in question, a red convertible with Louisiana plates, was seen leaving the parking lot.
Wrong: Jamie Khatri, the company’s chief technology officer flew to Austin for the meeting.
- Right: Jamie Khatri, the company’s chief technology officer, flew to Austin for the meeting.
For clarity and precision, we need both commas. Again, I suspect that the decreased use arises from hasty editing—not from a change in the rule that applies in some other genre of writing such as literature, journalism, or college essays. Let’s save this comma.
You can help by retaining these three commas in your own writing. And if you’re invited to edit or comment on someone else’s writing, you can encourage the use of these commas—kindly and warmly, of course.