college commas


Place a comma before quoted material, right?

Attribution Tags, Introductory Subordinate Elements, Nonrestrictives

For example:

In these lines, Eliot quoted Tennyson’s poem, “To— , After Reading a Life and Letters” (1849).

No issue with the first comma; that’s a structure comma identifying an introductory dependent clause. And the third comma is part of the title to a poem—a poem written in 1849, no less. So we leave that one alone.

Now, let’s consider the second comma. The writer who submitted this question remembered a common rule: use a comma before a quotation. But the reality isn’t that simple, is it? Sure, we use a comma with attribution tags. However, we don’t use a comma with conjuncted or running quotations, since those are intricate parts of the sentence. Beyond attributions, we might also put a comma before a quotation in a sentence that begins with an introductory subordinate element. For instance:

Because of the recent crime wave,“our peace-loving citizens carry fear into their beds each night,” according to Mayor Harding.

So forget “use a comma before quoted material.” Please? It’s too simplistic. We learned it in middle school when sentences were simple. But now that we’ve graduated to a complex, compound sentence world, we’re ready to hear the truth: simple rules are usually convenient lies to get you started.

In this example, for instance, the material inside the quotation marks isn’t even a quotation. It’s the title of a poem, which only some writing style guides identify with quotation marks.

We would only use a comma in this instance, then, if the title of Tennyson’s poem is a nonrestrictive element. Since Alfred Tennyson, one of the most celebrated poets of Victorian Britain, wrote more than one poem (many, many more), readers need the title of the poem to identify which one is being discussed. So unless the context of this sentence, excerpted from a research essay, unambiguously narrows its discussion to only this one poem by Tennyson, the title is restrictive. So no comma:

In these lines, Eliot quoted Tennyson’s poem “To— , After Reading a Life and Letters” (1849).

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