The Comma

August 9, 2009


When learning a language, people always think about learning the grammar, the pronunciation, and the vocabulary to improve their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.  In fact, this is what most language tests focus on.  With regards to improving one’s writing, punctuation is very important but often neglected. 

In the next several entries, let us take a look at some of the punctuation marks in the English language and their usage.  Believe it or not, punctuating properly could help you win more points on the next writing task!

Let’s start with the comma!  A comma marks a short pause in speech and is used for clarification purposes.    

1.                  Separate items in a series which has three or more items.  “She was commended for her hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the job.”  While some may argue that the last comma (the one after ‘dedication’) is not necessary, the presence of this serial comma or Oxford comma helps readability, especially when the items mentioned are complex or lengthy. My recommendation is to always include this comma as anything that helps your reader will mean a higher score for you!  (You may find that this comma is not present in newspaper articles.) 

2.                  Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, yet, for, nor, or).  “She has been asked to translate for the company’s clients many times, but she was not receiving a bilingual bonus for it.” 

3.                 Before direct speech.

She said to her clients, “We greatly appreciate your business.”

4.                 In non-defining/non-restrictive relative clauses.

“The people, who had lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  (Meaning: Everyone in line had lined up since last night and was able to purchase the new video game.)  Notice that sometimes the ‘who’ may be missing. “The people, lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.”  Contrast this with: “The people who lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Only the people who had lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.)

5.                 To set off an introductory phrase or an interjection.

“Related to your job performance, we believe you deserve a promotion.”

“We believe, May, that your job performance should be commended.” 

This also goes for greetings, like in an email message:

Hi, May (although we often see “Hi May” instead, as people treat it like “Dear May”)

Thank you, May

Good morning, May

6.               To separate descriptive adjectives. (See my entry on Order of Adjectives.)

There are three instances when a comma is needed.  First, when adjectives are repeated for the purpose of intensification (‘big, big project’).  Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning and not incompatible with each so that if one is missing, the overall meaning is not lost (‘charming, attractive manager’).   Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence (‘expensive, French black suit’). 

7.                  To set off a contrasting phrase.

“It was her dedication, not her charm, which won her supervisor’s support.”

8.        For typographical reasons.

With dates – “She started working for the company on December 1, 2004.”  Without a date, the comma is not needed. “She started working for the company in December 2004.”

With place names – “The company is located in Santa Monica, California, a city near the coast.” 

With numbers – “The net worth of the company is $1,000,000.”

With name and suffix (although the comma may often be omitted) – “The president of the company is John Smith, Jr.”


There may be other instances where a comma is appropriate to avoid confusion.  However, do not overdo it either! 

How are you?

July 31, 2009



“Hello, how are you?” 

Do you get asked this or end up asking this when you are speaking in an English setting before a conversation actually begins?  Did your boss tell you to use this to greet your English-speaking clients?  Were you told that this is a polite gesture?  Do you use this as a conversation starter in English?

In fact, greetings are the most common speech act in any language.  Especially in an English business setting, one should observe the appropriate convention of greeting others to be polite and to build relationships.  “Hello/Hi, how are you?” is the most common salutation spoken by English speakers but is a rhetorical question.

When speaking in English and if asked this question, one should understand that the usage of this phrase is so common as a conversation starter that its actual meaning has become rather trivial, even though it is an expression of care.  When faced with this question, the listener needs to respond with “fine”, “well”, or “good” (or other similar variations, such as “very well”, see below) and nothing more (except maybe a “thank you” afterwards) and then ask back the same question, which then elicits a similar response.  Indeed, English speakers do not usually deviate from this speech act by responding that one is “not so well” and giving a long explanation unless both speakers already have an established relationship.  When two strangers meet for the first time, both would follow this conventional speech act because such a deviation would bewilder the listener.    

Note that one could also add a “good morning/good afternoon/good evening” in front of the “how are you” greeting.

In other languages the above convention may be different.  In Chinese, for example, speakers express “hello” somewhat differently.  While the Chinese language also has an expression similar to the English phrase, “Hello, how are you?”, specifically 你好嗎? (Pinyin: Ní hăo ma?), this phrase is not used in speech, but rather reserved for written correspondences as it is considered rather formal and may be a bit intrusive if asked in speech as questions are usually answered sincerely in Chinese.  Instead, Chinese speakers would only say 你好! (Pinyin: Ní hăo!), which when translated directly means “You are well!”  When two people meet, both speakers say this same expression to greet one another to wish the other good fortune.  Chinese’s strong belief in fortune and luck probably has some influence here.  When one probes to receive a longer and more sincere response about the health of the other person, one would say 你最近好嗎? (Pinyin: Nĭ zuì jìn hăo ma?), which directly translates to “How are you recently?”  In turn, the other person would, most often, respond back with a synopsis of his or her recent affairs. 

As can be seen, no matter the language, greetings require both the greeter and the informant to cooperate with one another.  In order to do this, one must understand the conventional expectations of an expression in order to respond appropriate and to convey politeness.  An appropriate response allows one to “fit in” to the culture of the same language speakers. 

When learning English, or any other language, besides focusing on the meaning of an expression, one should also learn the appropriate situational contexts of usage.  Even the simplest and most basic phrase- the salutation- could be rather complex. 

Here are some variations to the above mentioned greetings, which could be interchanged:


Question                                      Response

Hello, how are you (today)?          Fine, thank you, and you?

Hi, how are you?                           Good, how are you? (the ‘you’ is stressed)

How are you doing?                      I’m well/I’m fine/I’m okay/I’m good.

How is it going? (informal)             I’m doing alright/I’m doing well, and you?

How’s everything (lately)?             Very well, thank you (for asking). How about you?

How is everything (with you)?       Alright/Pretty well/Quite well/Pretty good/

                                                     Good/Good, good  

How do you do? (not common amongst Americans)