Punctuation–commas in particular–seems to confuse beginning writers (and seasoned ones as well) more than many other aspects of grammar. Most of us are hopefully taught good grammar in school (although I’ve heard a rumor that that it’s been getting pushed aside there). Even if not, we have grammar reinforced in our daily speech (and from hearing others correct us when we screw it up).
The problem with punctuation is that it’s not heard in speaking, at least not in the same way. We hear questions, exclamations, and pauses, but we don’t automatically envision the punctuation they represent in our heads. In our everyday writing punctuation is often limited to periods, question marks, and exclamations, with an occasional comma. In texting (unfortunately), punctuation is both inconvenient and mostly unnecessary. Only when you become a serious writer do you start to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of punctuation–and sometimes not even then.
Scott and I are working on a book tentatively called “Punctuation for Fiction Writers” where we hope to cover both the basics and the advanced stuff that will bring your writing to a new level and make it sparkle (and make you sound like you know what you’re doing).
This post will cover the basic rules of comma usage. But, for the punctuation police among you, this is NOT an exhaustive treatment and is far from complete even in the examples I’ll use. We’ll save the full treatment for the book.
Before we cover those simple rules, let’s understand the purpose of a comma (and punctuation in general). The main purpose (maybe the only purpose) of punctuation is to make the writing easier to read and clear in its intent. Yes, some rules of punctuation are arbitrary and mere convention for purposes of consistency, such as putting punctuation inside versus outside quote marks. Most of the rules do, however, make sense.
That said, let’s get started. In their simplest uses, commas add pauses to our speech (hence to our writing), and they help clarify the meaning of our sentences. Now, before you purists out there threaten to strangle me for suggesting that commas are inserted in the writing wherever we’d pause if reading it out loud, that is NOT what I’m saying. Commas represent clarifying breaks. We usually hear them in speech, but not always.
Now that I’ve made a case for proper comma usage, here are the basic rules of them–
(1) Use commas to set off the elements in a series, and insert one before the last element, as in the examples above. NOTE: The last comma in the series is called the “serial comma” and sometimes the “Oxford comma.” (Look it up on the Internet to see why.) Current usage says it should be there, even though many writers don’t use it. Example: He bought a newspaper, magazine, and comics. Many people (incorrectly) leave out that last comma. You’ll find many examples online of reasons to use it.
(2) Use a comma to set off introductory phrases
–After a long day at work, he came home and fell asleep on the couch.
–Instead of driving to work that day, Mitch decided to ride his bike
–As soon as he saw the dog dart into the street, he slammed on the brakes.
–Running as fast as he could, Philip managed to escape the bullies.
–Without a glance back at her, he walked away.
–If he was going to make it to the airport on time, he had to breaks a few speed limits.
(3) Use commas around the name of the person you’re addressing
–Mary, please come here.
–Please come here, Robert.
–I must say, Steve, that I’m disappointed with your performance. (note that you put a comma before AND after the person’s name when it appears in the middle of a sentence)
(4) Use commas to separate independent clauses in a sentence.
–I’d love to go with you, but I’m busy tonight.
–He left the house later than normal that morning, and the traffic was heavier than he expected.
You don’t need to remember the term “independent clause.” Just know that it means “a complete sentence by itself.” In the second example, we could have written it as two separate sentences: He left the house later than normal that morning. The traffic was heavier than he expected. In fact, use the comma anytime two independent clauses (complete sentences) are joined by a conjunction such as: and, but, or, and a few others.
(5) Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements or appositives. By these, I mean phrases that are added as extra information or explanations that are otherwise not required to make it a complete sentence. I’m not going to distinguish parenthetical elements from appositives in the examples. The rule is the same regardless of what you call them.
Here’s a link that explains appositives–
–That building, the one made of tan brick, is the oldest in the city.
–Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, was assassinated in office.
–My goal after I graduate from college, assuming I graduate, is to open my own business.
–She should, in my opinion, not wear that dress in public.
–He ran out of the office, holding his briefcase tight against his body, as he headed to his car.
(6) Use a comma, never a period to set off a dialog tag from the dialog. Note: If the dialog is a question or exclamation, use the ? or ! in place of the comma, but do NOT capitalize the dialog tag after it.
–John said, “Thanks for coming.”
–“Thanks for coming,” John said.
–“Are you coming over tonight?” asked Judy.
–“Absolutely!” he said.
–“What I meant,” Keith said after a moment of hesitation, “is that there’s no need to tell him right away.”
Here’s a great, if extreme, example of why commas and other punctuation are necessary, and it provides a strong reason for using the serial comma. (Note the comma usage in that sentence: a parenthetical and for the joining of two independent clauses.)
Kevin said Jennifer go to the store and buy me some apples corn bread chicken sausage coffee creamer chocolate chips paper napkins and towels and pork and beans.
Two questions arise here. First, who is telling whom to go to the store? Second, how many and which items are actually being purchased?
If Kevin is the one talking:
Kevin said, “Jennifer, go to the store and buy me some apples corn bread chicken sausage coffee creamer chocolate chips paper napkins and towels and pork and beans.”
On the other hand, if Jennifer is the one talking:
“Kevin,” said Jennifer, “go to the store and buy me some apples corn bread chicken sausage coffee creamer chocolate chips paper napkins and towels and pork and beans.
That part is fixed, but is Kevin supposed to buy 14 items: apples, corn, bread, chicken, sausage, coffee, creamer, chocolate, chips (presumably potato), paper (what kind), napkins, towels, pork, beans?
Maybe he’s to buy: apples, corn bread, chicken sausage, coffee creamer, chocolate chips, paper napkins, paper towels, pork and beans?
Or some combination in between? Without the commas, we could guess, but we might be wrong. In speech, we’d likely hear the pauses of item separation. On the written page, we need commas to clue us.
And if this doesn’t convince you to use the final comma in a series, here’s my favorite example:
“I want to thank my parents, the Pope, and the Virgin Mary.”
But if you leave out the final comma, you alter the meaning of the sentence–
“I want to thank my parents, the Pope and the Virgin Mary.”
The end piece now becomes an appositive indicating that the speaker’s parents are the Pope and the Virgin Mary. If you choose to leave out the serial comma, make certain that you don’t commit this type of error.
Before I end this brief tutorial, I want to address two more points with commas.
The first is known as the “comma splice.” I see this error committed by many self-published writers. A comma splice is the putting together of two sentences without using a conjunction, and it’s considered every bit as serious an error as confusing your/you’re, there/their/they’re, and its/it’s.
–He went to the store, he bought bread and milk.
–James thought for sure he was going to pass algebra, he was wrong.
–I left the house early, I had to catch a plane to Atlanta at eight A.M.
–So he could afford to attend college, he worked two job during the summer, but he still didn’t earn enough to pay all of his tuition, his grandparents gave him the rest.
This last sentence is fine up to “his grandparents.” The comma before it should be a period. The test of a comma spice is whether you can insert a period in place of the comma and have what follows be a complete sentence. If it is, then the comma is wrong.
Some of you may say that on occasion comma splices are allowed. That’s true, but only when the two sentences are so closely related that it makes sense to put them together. Scott and I will cover those in our book, but for now, I recommend you not split hairs and avoid then unless you absolutely know what you’re doing.
The second point I wish to make is that you should be careful not to overuse commas. Do not insert a comma simply because you feel a pause is necessary. Make sure there is a justifiable reason for its presence, such as making the sentence clearer. As Scott and I will also cover in our book, there are places where a comma is optional, but where it should be added for clarification. Sometimes a comma is added to give the sentence a subtly different meaning. Again, until you understand these, be careful.
I kept my rules to these six because they’re the most important ones, and the ones I most often see abused. Six basic rules. Learn these, and your writing will be much better.
For several more rules (but still not all of them), check out the excellent link below.
Until next time.