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Executive communications expert Dianna Booher discusses about enclosing commas

Many things in life come in pairs: Shoes. Earrings. Salt and pepper shakers. Knife and fork. Chop sticks. Bookends. Ping-pong paddles. Pillowcases. Parentheses.

Commas. Not all commas. But some commas.

You’ll never see an open parenthesis alone—like this ( –unless someone has made a proofreading error and forgotten to add the closing parenthesis. But you’ll often see writers use the first enclosing comma and forget to add the last one of the pair.

Examples:

––James Jones, my mentor for the past decade has advised me to accept the job offer.

––The Baxter contract, the document that our lawyers consider iron-clad is now under review by the courts.

––Our project team has been overwhelmed with applicants, which often apply online but we have set a goal to respond to each of them within 24 hours.

In each case above, the second comma of the pair is missing.

Think of commas for this use as if they were bookends. A comma belongs both before and after the words you are enclosing:

Examples:

––James Jones, my mentor for the past decade, has advised me to accept the job offer.

––The Baxter contract, the document that our lawyers consider iron-clad, is now under review by the courts.

––Our project team has been overwhelmed with applicants, which often apply online, but we have set a goal to respond to each of them within 24 hours.

Examples: (The commas serve as bookends around the red information.)

––James Jones, my mentor for the past decade, has advised me to accept the job offer.

––The Baxter contract, the document that our lawyers consider iron-clad, is now under review by the courts.

––Our project team has been overwhelmed with applicants, which often apply online, but we have set a goal to respond to each of them within 24 hours.

Enclosing commas cut away nonessential (nondefining) clauses and phrases from the rest of the sentence. Do not use a comma if the clause or phrase in question is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The Records Committee recommends that we implement a Vital Records Protection Program for all organizational units, especially those in the New York offices, and develop a procedures manual after the pilot effort. (Especially those in the New York offices is nonessential, additional information.)

Here are a few other frequent uses of enclosing commas: the abbreviations i.e. (that is) and e.g. (for example) and the abbreviations for academic degrees and titles.

Examples:

––They considered Francine Smith, J.D., to serve on the committee.
––Matt Frazier, Ph.D., presided at the meeting.
––The report referred to her negligence, e.g., drunkenness, unattended toddlers, unclean food.

When you forget to add that last comma of the enclosing pair, it’s as disconcerting to the reader as trying to balance several books on a shelf against one bookend.

Dianna Booher, an expert in executive communications, is the author of 46 books, published in 26 countries and 20 languages.  Her latest books include Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think, and Act Like a Leader and Communicate with Confidence, Revised Edition. As CEO of Booher Consultants and as a high-caliber keynote speaker, Dianna and her staff travel worldwide to deliver focused speeches and training programs to address specific communication challenges and increase effectiveness in oral, written, interpersonal, and organizational communication.   www.booher.com

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16 thoughts on “Writing Skills: Treat Enclosing Commas Like Bookends”

  1. Very helpful. I think I’ll forward to my daughter who just got a college paper back with a lower grade than she was expecting because of her use (or lack of use) of commas!

  2. HA! This really helps out a lot! The older I get, the more it seems that I need to retake an english class…lol

  3. Clever and correct use of the enclosing comma in your comment, Rick. Thanks for the additional illustration!

  4. Yes, Greta, your daughter will thank you. There is such a thing as punctuation in the workplace, and it often determines meaning. The sooner she “gets it,” the better her communication skills.

  5. Incorrect comma usage is one of my biggest pet peeves! I am printing this out and distributing it at our staff meeting, and sending to a few needy friends. Thank you for this terrific information!

  6. Good issue to bring to the attention of writers everywhere. Catholic school pounded comma usage into my head, but now I’m hearing that the rules have changed and I’m no longer sure what is correct.

    1. God bless those Catholic teachers, Denise! Somebody had to go through the comma confusion with students. By the way, where did you hear that comma rules have changed? Maybe from those who have forgotten them? Or from those watching the social media stream go by? Or from those too rushed to hit the extra key strokes in their text messages?

  7. I’m afraid to leave a comment, or a comma. I think many of us out there can use a refresher on punctuation. Did I spell that correctly? I’m going to read this one more time. He walks away slowly.

    1. Clever, Steve. And you’ve got the hang of it. Edit, edit, edit. So people don’t chuckle, chuckle, chuckle. Seriously, I’ve discovered that people will cut you some slack for mistakes every now and then. It’s the I-don’t-care-because-I-don’t-understand-how-grammar-affects-clarity attitude that boggles my mind.

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