This is another post on the subject of commas. It seems that, no matter how much is written about this little mark, it continues to be a dark area of writer’s understanding. While it may seem that an author can put a comma just about anywhere, or not, there are some basic “rules” or guidelines that work most of the time. Following are some of the more frequently abused rules.
- Use commas to separate words and word-groups in a simple series of three or more items. That phrase “word-groups” is important, as in the following examples:
The flag had three colors: red, white, and blue.
I’m not sure which color I like best: blue, green, or turquoise.
The last comma in the above examples is debated, and has adherents on both sides. The reason is that the previous commas serve in place of the word and or or. Without commas, these sentences would read:
The flag had three colors: red and white and blue.
I’m not sure which color I like best: blue or green or turquoise.
Replacing the commas in the original sentence with the appropriate conjunctions, it would read:
The flag had three colors: red and white and and blue.
I’m not sure which color I like best: blue or green or or turquoise.
As you can see, that last comma seems to be redundant, and many writers and written media leave it out. However, things get a little more complicated when dealing with word-groups, as in the following example:
The vegetable choices were squash, carrots and peas and asparagus.
Are there four veggie choices or three? If carrots and peas are one dish, then there are three, and the sentence should have been written as:
The vegetable choices were squash, carrots and peas, and asparagus.
In this case, the last comma is needed for clarity—which should be every writers goal.
Whichever style you prefer, it’s important to be consistent AND clear in your writing. If you’re not sure, put in the extra comma before the last item in the series.
For more complicated series, consisting of a string of phrases, each one perhaps containing one or more commas, the same logic applies, except that the phrases are likely to be separated by a semicolon instead of a comma.
- In sentences with two independent clauses, which are connected by a conjunction (e.g., and, or, nor, but, for, so, yet), insert a comma after the first clause. An independent clause is one that contains a subject and a verb, which allows it to stand on its own. Example:
He was really worried about his finances so he talked to his banker.
These are two independent thoughts. As written, this is a “run-on sentence”, a common error. Putting a comma in is “almost” like putting a period after the first clause.
He was really worried about his finances. So, he talked to his banker.
To recombine the two independent clauses, separate them with a comma.
He was really worried about his finances, so he talked to his banker.
Note that, if the two phrases are fairly short, the comma may be unnecessary (e.g., I’m tall and he’s short).
- When a sentence begins with a dependent clause or phrase, as this one does, a comma should follow it. A dependent clause is one that has both a subject and a verb, but it can’t stand on its own. For example:
If you are in town, give me a call.
The opening clause in the second sentence (If you are in town) has a subject (you) and a verb (are), but it makes no sense without the rest of the sentence, so it’s dependent.
One more thing. If the sentence (If you’re in town…) is turned around so that the dependent clause follows the main clause, the comma is unnecessary:
Give me a call if you’re in town.
Here’s another example:
When we arrived there were already police on the scene.
This sentence is really confusing. Reading sequentially, it says When we arrived there …, which is not what the writer intended. Adding a comma makes the sense correct:
When we arrived, there were already police on the scene.
This error is extremely common. The writer may “hear” the sentence correctly in his or her head, but forgets to put the comma in when writing it.
- Use commas to set off non-essential words, clauses, and phrases (especially who, that, which, etc.). Examples:
My brother, who lives in Texas, is a cowboy. This sentence implies that the writer has one brother, and it so happens that he lives in Texas, which is a non-essential information.
My brother who lives in Texas is a cowboy. This sentence implies that the writer has other brothers, but this is the brother who lives in Texas. This is essential to the thought.
Leaving out any of the commas in these two sentences would change the meaning, and would probably be either confusing or convey the wrong information.
- Use a comma after certain words that introduce a sentence (e.g., also, although, and, but, finally, furthermore, however, lastly, moreover, nevertheless, no, on the other hand, so, therefore, though, well, why, yes, yet). Examples:
Yes, I can see that.
However, sometimes I forget.
There are some words or short phrases that are interjected into the middle of a sentence, interrupting the thought (e.g., after all, by the way, for example, however, namely, on the other hand, nevertheless, that is). In those cases, there should be a comma in front of the word, and in some cases one after, as well. Examples:
Yes, I can see that, although I sometimes forget.
There are two kinds of pie I like, namely, apple and mincemeat.
- Use commas to introduce or interrupt direct quotations. Examples:
John said, “I’m ready to fight.”
“Why no,” she said, “I won’t go.”
With electronic typing and printing, the placement of commas and periods may not follow traditional rules. So, these two sentences might appear as:
John said, “I’m ready to fight”.
“Why no”, she said, “I won’t go”.
However, many people feel that when a period ends a quote AND the sentence, it should be placed inside the last quotation mark, as follows:
John said, “I’m ready to fight.”
“Why no”, she said, “I won’t go.”
And then there are writers who introduce a quote with a colon, or eliminate the comma for one-word quotations:
John said: “I’m ready to fight.”
She said “No.”
On the other hand, when phrases like John said, she said, he wrote, Jane demanded, or the like, come after the quote, the quoted material should end with a comma. Examples:
“I’m ready to fight,” John shouted.
“Why no, I won’t go,” she vowed.
- Insert a comma where you would pause speaking. An effective way to implement this rule is to put down on paper what would result if the writer spoke clearly and deliberately into a voice recorder, and later transcribed it. Another option is to write the material, then imagine standing in front of an audience and carefully reading exactly what’s on the page, pausing at commas and semicolons and stopping at colons and periods. Many writers don’t follow this rule, and this often results in mistaken phrases and run-on sentences. Example:
When I was a young man of sixteen lads were trained to farm.
Here the author is not thinking (or writing) out loud. The writer probably said silently, and meant to write, the following:
When I was a young man of sixteen, lads were trained to farm.
Proper use of commas is not just an exercise in grammar. The idea of writing is to convey your (hopefully well-organized) thoughts to your readers’ eyes and minds. The purpose of this post, in summary then, is to bring to your attention how important the little comma is to effective communication and how it can make you look like a professional, or not, depending on how carefully your sentences are crafted.
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