Just Comma Crazy!

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Comma Crazy? Comma down, now. Let’s talk.

I once had a student tell me that he used commas like seasoning—sprinkle them throughout the paper to add flavor. Well, that’s not exactly how commas work. In my humble opinion, commas are of the most difficult punctation marks to master, and the reason they are difficult is because you have to know a lot about how sentences are put together to know where and when to use them.

With that in mind, fiction writing is less hard and fast than academic writing, so sometimes writers omit commas as long as the intended meaning is unmistakable.

However, it is always good to know your comma rules. So, let’s take a look at how commas are often used in sentences. Why? Because they can save the world! Or, at least Grandma.

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Note: This does not cover commas in other uses, such as addresses, dates, etc.

Rule #1: Items in a Series

When you list three or more items in a series, you should separate the items with commas.

Example: I like reading, writing, and dancing.

That’s a very simplistic example, but in many narratives, the sentences are far more complex, so let’s look at another example.

Example: Elizabeth walked into the smoke-filled bar, scanned the crowd for the mysterious man who waited for her arrival, and finally saw him perched on a stool at the back of the room.

Now, there is one little problem with commas in a series.  The Oxford Comma. I personally like and use the Oxford comma, but some people don’t like it.  The Oxford comma is the last comma in the series (the one that comes right before the conjunction.) That’s up to personal preference, or if you are writing using a specific style, it’s up to the rules of the style guide.

Here’s one good argument for the Oxford comma:

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What do you think? Do you Oxford or not?


Rule #2: Introductory Stuff

Rule #2 is the rule that many people miss. It’s one of the most common errors in writing.

When you start a sentence with an introductory word, phrase, or clause, you should follow the introductory material with a comma to avoid misreading the sentence.

Consider this sentence: When he returned the car was in the driveway.

Without a comma, you may read “When he returned the car” as a unit before realizing that “the car” is part of the next unit. See? Confusion!

(Side note: a clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that works as a unit. A phrase is group of words that works as a unit but does not have a subject and verb.) 

Here are a few examples.

Example (introductory word): Unfortunately, commas are difficult for many people.

Example (introductory phrase): In the meantime, study comma rules and practice.

Example (introductory clause): When you practice comma use, it will become easier.

Now, there is one additional component to this rule. That component involves combining clauses (creating a complex sentence).

There are two types of clauses: independent and dependent. An independent clause has a subject and a verb, and it can stand alone as a sentence.  A dependent clause (or subordinate clause) has a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone as a sentence. It usually starts with a subordinating conjunction or relative pronoun.

Here are some examples.

Independent Clause: The woman sang.

Dependent Clause: When the woman sang.

When you are combining clauses, if the dependent clause is first, it falls under rule #2. However, if the independent clause is first, you don’t need a comma.

Here are some examples.

Example 1:

Dependent clause + , + independent clause

When the woman sang, the people cheered.

Example 2:

Independent clause + dependent clause

The people cheered when the woman sang.


Rule #3: Compound Sentences

Another way to join clauses is to use a coordinating conjunction (FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) between two independent clauses. If you do that, you need to add a comma. It is called a compound sentence.

Example:

Independent clause + , + coordinating conjunction independent clause

The woman sang, and the people cheered.

However, if you use a coordinating conjunction, but you don’t have two independent clauses, you don’t need the comma.

Consider the difference between these two sentences.

The agent requested the manuscript, but she did not give me a deadline to send it.

The agent requested the manuscript but did not give me a deadline to send it.

In the first sentence, the agent requested the manuscript and she did not give me a deadline to send it could both be sentences on their own. They have a subject, verb, and make a complete thought; thus, they are independent clauses.

In the second sentence, did not give me a deadline to send it could not stand alone as a sentence (lacks a subject), so it is not a clause at all. Therefore, since you do not have two independent clauses, you do not need the comma with the coordinating conjunction in the second example.


Rule #4: Essential and Non-Essential Stuff

When you are writing a sentence and include information that is not necessary to the sentence, you should enclose that information by using a comma before and after the extra information.

Example:  Mary and Sue, who are dressed very nicely today, are meeting for lunch.

In this sentence, who are dressed very nicely today is not essential information. It could be taken out of the sentence without changing the meaning of the sentence.

However, consider this sentence: The people who read my books are awesome.

In this sentence, who read my books is essential because if it is taken out, the sentence will not have the same meaning. Thus, the information should not be enclosed by commas.

Easy clues to using this rule correctly are the words that and which.

The word that is an indicator that the information that follows it is essential in the sentence, so if you use that, you probably don’t need a comma.

Likewise, the word which is an indicator that the information is non-essential, so you will almost always use a comma before the word which. 

Example #1: The song that I heard on the radio was beautiful.

Example #2: My favorite song, which I heard on the radio today, is “Pink” by Aerosmith.

Another aspect to this rule is when you use a person’s name in the sentence. If you are speaking to the person, you should enclose their name using commas, but if you are speaking about the person, no commas are needed.

Example #1: Have you heard, Anna, that the band is touring the country? (Speaking to Anna)

Example #2: Have you heard that Anna is touring the country with the band? (Speaking about Anna)


Rule #5: Adjectives

This is one of the rules that many people just simply ignore, but it is an important rule.

When you have more than one adjective describing a noun, you sometimes use commas and sometimes not.

Coordinate adjectives: These are adjectives that have the same “weight” in describing the noun. Each adjective is at the same level of impact on the noun. These are separated with commas.

Example: The torrential, destructive rain poured from the sky.

In this sentence, torrential and destructive both have equal weight in describing the rain. Thus, they should be separated with a comma.

An easy “trick” to see if you’ve got it right is to see if the sentence passes two tests.

Test 1: can you put the word “and” between the adjectives? (The torrential and destructive rain poured from the sky.)  If it sounds good, you need a comma.

Test 2: can you switch the order of the words? (The destructive, torrential rain poured from the sky.)  If it sounds good, you need a comma.

Cumulative Adjectives: These adjectives “pile up” to describe a noun and generally need to be kept in the same order.  You should not use commas between cumulative adjectives.

Example: The bright blue door was a great addition to the house.

This sentence would not pass the two tests previously mentioned. It wouldn’t sound right to say bright and blue door or blue bright door, so we know that they are cumulative not coordinate adjectives.


One final thought about commas: don’t use a comma between two independent clauses. That creates and error called a comma splice. Just don’t do it!  I know, I know…it happens, but I think a semicolon is just a whole lot nicer between two independent clauses! The semicolon is just so elegant. I told you I like punctuation!

 

Note: this post is adapted from my original post here

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11 comments to Just Comma Crazy!

  • I was once critiquing a chapter in a writer’s group, and noticed that the page was just FILLED with commas in all sorts of interesting places, most where they didn’t belong. I attempted to gently point out the problem but the writer assured me that “commas made the story prettier”. To this day I haven’t been sure if she was joking or not…

  • Oh my. I would have loved to have seen your face when she said that!

  • That was the day I decided the group wasn’t for me. 😉

  • Ken

    This is a good reference to have. I still have problems with commas if I’m not paying attention. Or if I’m tired. When I’m tired and writing, commas end up everywhere.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Go Oxford commas!!

    And thank you for this handy list. It’s rule #2 that I have the most terrible trouble with. I should maybe bookmark this post.

  • sagablessed

    You forgot the Shatner comma.
    The, Shatner, comma. It can, save lives, if used, properly.

  • On cumulative adjectives:

    When I see something like

    The bright, blue door

    my brain automatically substitutes:

    The bright door, the blue door.

    Quite irritating.

  • I’ve been reading a bunch of self-pubbed books, and the comma left out when you are addressing someone by name is the most common grammatical error I see. It stops me every time.

    I had an “editor” at one of my publishers who insisted that you should put a comma in every time you take a breath while reading. She must have had bad asthma because the comma errors were ridiculous and numerous. She got them wrong about 75% of the time. I complained, but she didn’t take me seriously until I mentioned I had a Bachelor’s, Masters, and most of a Ph.D. in English and had taught public and college level writing. I took out her inaccurate commas.

    And we should never, ever, forget the Shatner comma!

  • Great comments, everyone!

    Ken, we’re all more prone to making errors when we’re tired! I have banned myself from sleep-tweeting for that reason. 😉
    Hepseba, please do bookmark it! And share it with the world. People need to know this stuff!
    Sagablessed, I was teaching a introductory writing course about a year ago and joked about the Shatner comma. One student came to me after class to ask me (and she was dead serious) to further explain it. It took me ten minutes to convince her it was just a joke and not really a thing!
    Reziac, now I’m going to be doing that. That’s a great way to think about it though.
    MByerly, I tell my students all of the time that they can’t follow the “take a breath” rule! We don’t all breathe at the same time. Then, I show them an old Micromachines commercial and ask where they’d put the commas. Hehe… For your enjoyment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2egGfd5j_k
    Also, I honestly just don’t know what to say about that editor.

  • Razziecat

    Ugh, I hate Oxford commas, most of the time. I was taught that if you are using a word like “and” that last comma is unnecessary. In the sentence above (I had eggs, toast and orange juice), I don’t see why someone would assume that the orange juice was served ON the toast, just because there was no comma after the word “toast”. I think if the logical meaning of the sentence is clear, that comma isn’t needed.

    As for using commas in fiction, I’ve seen what MByerly describes, no comma between a name and the rest of the sentence. I hate that. The other thing that drives me crazy is when people write something like this: “John Smith, is the man that founded our company.” What’s that comma for??

  • Razzie, I’m with you on the Oxford comma. I hate seeing it and have never been ordered to use it by anyone who was paying me. 🙂