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Your Guides to Excellent Writing

Skydiving with nonrestrictive commas

By Stephen Wilbers

Author of 1,000 columns
published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune & elsewhere

Also see comma rules, nonrestrictive commas (with which but not that), nonrestrictive commas exercise, and FAQ punctuation.
 

 

I did something yesterday Iíve never done before. Not once, but twice. I jumped out of an airplane. I went skydiving, a birthday present from my son.

Sure, it was thrilling to climb out of a Cessna 182 at 3,000 feet into an 80-mile-an-hour wind, hang from the strut, look back at my divemaster, who smiled and pointed her finger at me Ė and let go, trusting my life to a bag of nylon and a bunch of cords. The serene beauty of the fields and forests surrounding Lake Wissota was breathtaking. And swooping down to the drop zone, pulling down on my toggles at 10 feet to flare the panels, and stepping gently onto the blessed earth was as delicious as the first time I felt the intoxicating balance of a bicycle.

All that was grand. But what made the experience unforgettable was the six-hour training class, expertly taught by a club member. Of course, the other newbies and I were apprehensive, but we began to relax while I was hanging in the practice harness demonstrating the various positions we were to assume if we were about to hit a tree, building, car, cow, or string of power lines. The drill gave us a lot of confidence.

That's when the instructor said, "Now, if both your main chute and your reserve fail, youíll gain a maximum velocity of 163 feet per second, or 111 miles per hour, in 9 seconds. At that speed youíll hit the ground in 22 seconds, which rarely happens."

"I'm concerned," said one of my fellow newbies. "Did you use a comma before your clause, 'which rarely happens'? I never learned the rules for using commas."

It was an awkward moment. We all felt sorry for the man who asked the question. Naturally, everyone looked at me, perhaps because I was in the harness, or perhaps because they knew who I was from seeing my photo in the newspaper police reports.

"Yes," I said, in my most reassuring tone. "Use commas with which clauses that are parenthetical or nonessential, as in ĎMy reserve chute deployed perfectly, which was a good thing, since I inadvertently cut and released my main.í In that sentence, the clause, Ďwhich was a good thing,í is nonessential. It could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence."

"Thank you," said the man. "Such a simple rule. Iím embarrassed I didnít learn it in school. But how can I tell if the clause is essential or nonessential?"

"Simple," I said. "If you can place the clause in parentheses, use commas. If you canít, donít."

"Would you give us another example?" asked another newbie, who like me was fit and trim.

"Sure," I said. "I used a comma before the nonrestrictive who clause in my preceding sentence."

"That's right," said the instructor. "Use commas with clauses that are nonessential; omit commas with clauses that are essential."

"Exactly," I said, noting her comma-free essential that clauses.

Exercise on using nonrestrictive commas

 

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