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Is there any good summary of comma and interpunctuation rules? I know that English spelling traditionally requires fewer commas than, for example, German, however I am often unsure whether to use a comma or not.

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up vote 3 down vote accepted

In English (as opposed to German, where the comma rules are based on syntax), commas are usually deployed to indicate intonation dips.

This is why commas are required with non-restrictive relative clauses, for instance, because the two relative clause types are distinguished in speech by intonation differences.

So the rule in English is to use a comma whenever you intend the reader to "hear" a Mid-High-Low-Mid intonation sequence, as if you were speaking it aloud. This is phonological, not grammatical, rather like the English rules for using articles before consonants and vowels.

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John Lawler What is the difference between these sentences: 1) "There is a difference between people who make sense, like me and you, and others who talk rubbish." / "There is a difference between people who make sense, like me, and you and others who talk rubbish." – Elberich Schneider Aug 2 '15 at 7:46
They're different, of course, because they'd be pronounced differently; the contour would appear after me in one and you in the other, changing the articulation of the constituents. That's what intonation does, except it doesn't have a binary range (comma/no comma) -- it's got several continuous variables to play with. Lots more bandwidth in speech than in writing. – John Lawler Aug 2 '15 at 13:48

There are more grammatical approaches to comma usage in English, though as John Lawler indicates, choice can depend on when one wishes the reader to 'hear' that particular intonation sequence. It can also depend on when you would like the reader to pause in reading a sentence.

More grammatical reasons for the use of a comma can be found at:



http://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/commas_in_lists.htm (and related grammar-monster pages).

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What these sites say seems to validate the intonation theory. Every example they give of good comma use would be pronounced with comma intonations, to make the same distinctions that the printed comma is said to make. The rules there may be useful for some non-native speakers, but native speakers -- and non-natives with a good ear -- can always hear how they'd say it. – John Lawler May 8 '13 at 19:57

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