Friday, May 26, 2017

109 Because Commas (English)

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Understanding Because Commas

Let’s start with an example before adding any guidelines.
I am not happy because it’s Friday.
I am happy, because it’s Friday.
So which sentence is correct?
The answer depends on what you intended to convey in your sentence.
So the question is:
What was intended?
In order to match what was intended with the sentence offering the same results, we have to first understand how the comma is used to remove restrictions.
As a general rule of thumb:
The use of a comma is going to imply non-restrictive treatment.
Let’s use a simpler example for this point.
The cat that is white.
The cat, which is white.
The cat that is white is a restrictive sentence.
What that means is that there are a number of cats and if I don’t restrict my description, then nobody will know which of the cats I was referring to.
Therefore, we add the one ‘that is white' to restrict the subject of the sentence to refer only to the one cat that is white.

The cat, which is white is a sentence that does not need to be restricted. We already know the subject of the sentence is a specific cat and there is no confusion or ambiguity regarding which of the group of cats is the subject that applies to this sentence. In fact, it is already implied in this sentence that there is only one cat to begin with, so the audience doesn't need to restrict the subject any further.

Exceptions to Because Commas

Now let's apply what we've learned to the first set of example sentences.
The first sentence: I am not happy because it’s Friday restricts the subject to mean that I am in fact happy, but not because it is Friday.

Once again, though the subject reads: I am not happy, there is an exception that occurs when we add because without preceding it with a comma.
I have restricted my happiness by excluding the modifier (a modifier is what comes after the comma that does the restricting, such as the color white for the previous feline example.)

If you understood that explanation on restricting a subject of a sentence, then you have just learned a New Rule in English Grammar that clarifies a currently ambiguous interpretation of existing grammar best practices for a comma to precede the word because.

Comma Practice Before Because

So how about this example:
I am not happy because it is Monday.
This should be easy now.
Answer: This example explains that I am happy, but not because it is Monday.

Rules for Because Commas

The existing rule for comma usage before the word because in a sentence is as follows:
When the subject is affirmative (without ‘not’), then the comma shifts the emphasis between the clauses of the sentence.
Let's examine some examples and clarify this grammar guideline.
I am happy because it’ Friday. This sentence emphasizes the cause (because it’s Friday) over the subject.
I am happy, because it’s Friday. The insertion of the non-restrictive comma draws the emphasis of the sentence to my happiness. I agree with these two interpretations on a high level, but on a granular level, they leave too much room for ambiguous misinterpretation.

This slight departure of restrictive clauses when because is involved for both negative and positive statements is a rare exception for comma styles.
(Note: the New Rule is not an exception nor does it require one.) Remember that non-restrictive means the modifier (the comma) will be followed by additional information that doesn't restrict the subject.

There is no reason why this rule shouldn't stand true for the word because whether if used as a subordinating conjunction or a compound preposition, such as when because of is paired up.
With the exception already detailed above of when the subject is negative (contains not), the comma before the word because causes the clause that follows to be non-restrictive; whereas without the comma, the expression that follows is restrictive.

Summary of Because Commas

When in doubt:
  • A comma never precedes ‘that.’
  • The word ‘because’ has multiple meanings depending on the restrictive clause and whether the subject is negative or positive.
  • When in doubt, ask the question: Can I complete the sentence without the phrase?
    If yes, then comma and non-restrictive, but if not, then no comma and restrictive.

Final Note on Because Commas

The concept of open form versus closed form may be relevant to this topic. Gains traction among the popular style guides.
Closed form refers to the old fashioned, strict adherence to the rules of comma usage, whereas open form refers to the reduction of implied commas, such as with brief appositives and the seemingly ineffectual shift in emphasis with affirmative because statements.
Removing commas that do not add value may be the direction that styles rules are inching towards, but most scholars would argue the essential value of the serial comma, though its use continues to stir debate among various career paths.