Thursday, January 21, 2010

AdminEssay: Oh, Comma, My Comma by ElleCC

Oh, Comma, My Comma

Commas.... Who knew that something so tiny could be such a problem? Commas are the most commonly used punctuation mark, and often they are the most likely to be used incorrectly. When I sat down to write this article, I realized how challenging it would be to write something concise and helpful that wouldn’t put people to sleep. In an attempt to do this, I am going to focus on just the most common errors. It’s also going to read a bit like a list, but hopefully that will keep it streamlined and more useful. Maybe.

Why do we care so much about commas? Mostly because things can get confusing – and fast – when they’re left out or put in the wrong place. Lynne Truss, the mastermind behind Eats, Shoots & Leaves, gives this example: “What is this thing called, love?” Is that a misplaced comma, or is it offsetting a direct address (more about that later)? The world may never know.

A note before I get started. Unfortunately, there are some shades of gray in the grammar and punctuation world, and rules are not always universally accepted. The rules presented below are ones on which most experts agree, and are ones on which I focus when I beta.

What is the purpose of the comma?

A comma separates and differentiates sentence parts, and indicates slight pauses in reading. Among other things, they can be used to join clauses, separate items in a list, and drive people crazy.

When do you use commas?

To indicate direct address
Anytime you address a person (and sometimes a thing) directly, always offset
the name with commas. This includes nicknames, pet names, “sir” and “ma’am,” insults, anything. Put commas on both sides of the name, as applicable.

        Ex: “Edward, wait up a minute,” she called.

        Ex: “How are you, baby?”

        Ex: “I don’t know about you, dear sister, but I’m hungry.”

        Ex: “Love of my life, can you please get me a beer?”

        Ex: “Look, jackass, I’ve had enough of this.”
After an introductory phrase
An introductory phrase – sometimes short, sometimes long – comes before the subject and verb in a sentence. (The introductory phrase can be made up of adverb clauses, participial phrases, or prepositional phrases.)

        Ex: When it started to rain Wednesday afternoon, I was still walking home.

        Ex: After a fifteen-hour flight filled with nothing but gray skies and turbulence, the plane landed safely.

If the introductory phrase is short and there’s no danger of misreading, no comma is needed. In the second example below, the sentence might be confusing without the comma (Is Esme the one being hunted?).

        Ex: Later this year we will be going to Alaska.

        Ex: After hunting, Esme tended to the garden.

Caution! Common comma mistake!

Beware of using too many commas. In most cases, if a sentence with an introductory phrase is reversed, a comma will not be required between the former introductory phrase and the clause that contains the subject and verb.

        INCORRECT: I was still walking home, when it started to rain Wednesday afternoon.

        CORRECT: I was still walking home when it started to rain Wednesday afternoon.

        INCORRECT: Esme tended to the garden, after hunting.

        CORRECT: Esme tended to the garden after hunting.

The phrase, once moved to the beginning of the sentence, is no longer introductory and there is therefore no need to separate it from the rest of the sentence.
To set off quotations that occur within a sentence
This is very important for dialogue, the fiction writer’s best friend (worst enemy?). Issues with punctuation around dialogue are common, but luckily the rules are straightforward.

The most important things to remember:

    1. Use a comma with tags such as “said,” or variations thereof. Use it before and after the dialogue tag, as applicable.

        Ex: “It only happens,” Alice said, “when I really concentrate on them.”

        Ex: “Here’s your schedule, dear,” Mrs. Cope said, smiling.

        Note: If the tag is a complete sentence all by itself, use a period instead of a comma.

        Ex: Mike laughed wildly. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard!”

    2. In American English, commas (and periods) always go inside quotation marks.

        Ex: “Don’t look at me like that,” she said.

        Ex: Even though his sister had called the class “boring,” he found himself fascinated by the subject matter.

Caution! Common comma mistake!

Do not use a comma with a question mark or exclamation point. Only use the question mark or exclamation point. Those are both stronger than the comma, and in a battle, they win.

        INCORRECT: “Have you seen my bunny rabbit?,” she asked.

        CORRECT: “Wow, he’s hot!” she said.
Before a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent clauses
What’s an independent clause? A word group that can stand on its own as a sentence. Coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet.

        Ex: We were going to go play ball, but it was raining by the time we finally made up our minds.

        Ex: I think we’re going out to dinner, and we’re going to my favorite restaurant.

        Ex: She forgot to wear sunscreen, so now she has a crazy sunburn.

If the two clauses are short, no comma is needed.

        Ex: It was sunny so we went to the meadow.

Caution! Common comma mistake!

Do not use a comma by itself to join two independent clauses. This type of error is called a “comma splice” and creates run-on sentences. Instead of a comma, use a period, semicolon, or conjunction/comma combination – a comma is just not strong enough to do this job all on its own, poor little buddy.

        INCORRECT: It’s really nice out today, I think I’ll go to the park.

        CORRECT: It’s really nice out today. I think I’ll go to the park.

        CORRECT: It’s really nice out today; I think I’ll go to the park.

        CORRECT: It’s really nice out today, and I think I’ll go to the park.

The dash and colon can also be used to fix some comma splices, but not all.
To set off a present participial phrase
When two verbs are used to show distinct, simultaneous actions of the same subject, and the verbs are not connected by a conjunction, a comma is required before the second verb. This is a very common fiction-writing construct.

        Ex: I rolled over on the bed, gripping my pillow tightly.

        Ex: He sang at the top of his lungs, belting out the lyrics.

In these two examples, the second verb starts a participial phrase.
To set off a nonrestrictive phrase
A nonrestrictive phrase is a phrase whose inclusion in a sentence isn’t necessary. It gives some extra info that we may or may not need, and although it
might make the sentence more rich or interesting, it isn’t imperative. Removing a nonrestrictive phrase won’t change the basic meaning of the sentence.

        Ex: The dog, which lived down the block, always came running around during dinner.

        Ex: The dog that lived down the block always came running around during dinner.

The first example demonstrates how to write the sentence if we don’t care where the dog lives – the important information is that he always showed up for dinner. In the second example, the dog is defined by living down the block, so the information is imperative – restrictive – to the sentence.

Additional example:

        Ex: The visiting vampires, who usually lived in Alaska, were vegetarians also.

        Ex: The vampires who lived in Denali were vegetarians also.

In the first example, the important thing about the vampires is that they are visiting and vegetarians. That they’re from Alaska is secondary information, so that phrase is offset by commas. The second example is specifically referencing the vampires from Denali, so no commas are required.

Okay, one more, for kicks...

        Ex: My dad, Charlie, lives by himself.

        Ex: My sister Rosalie lives with her husband.

Why commas for Charlie but not Rose? Charlie gets commas because the speaker only has one father – in this case, his name isn’t important, just that he exists and lives by himself. In the second example, the speaker has more than one sister, so that she’s referencing her sister Rosalie specifically is imperative to the sentence being correct.

This double-comma offset usage also works for parenthetical and transitional expressions, absolute phrases, appositives (which can be restrictive and nonrestrictive), and contrasted elements.

        Ex: She was, of course, crazy about him from the start.

        Ex: One of my favorite movies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was playing at the old theatre downtown.

        Ex: As a matter of fact, Stephen King is my favorite author.

        Ex: It was my sister, not my brother, who broke the window.

No comma required:

        Ex: The song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the Muppets is my favorite holiday song.

Hmm... beat that one to death, huh? Well, we’re almost to the end.

Other comma uses, in brief... sort of....

When using a minor interjection (i.e., oh, hey, well), or with “yes” or “no”:
        Ex: “Oh, that’s not what I was expecting.”

        Ex: “Hey, isn’t that your sister?”

        Ex: “No, we are definitely not doing that tonight!”

        Ex: “That’s what you said, yes?”

If it is a strong interjection, you could use an exclamation point: “Hey! You there!”
For a series or list of things:
        Ex: My hunting preferences are bear, cheetah, and cougar.

        Ex: For lunch, I had Doritos, peanut butter and jelly, and Oreos dipped in milk.

To use a comma before the “and” or not? The “serial” (or “Oxford”) comma tends to be a matter of personal preference. You don’t really need it unless the sentence is unclear without it, as in the second example above. (Peanut butter dipped in milk? Jelly dipped in milk?) Whether you choose to use it or not, be consistent with your decision, but adapt as needed.
To separate noncumulative adjectives:
        Ex: She passed the tall, sexy, gorgeous boy three times a day in the hall.

        Ex: He was a scary old man, regardless of what he did with his hair.

        Ex: My cute white dress is in the laundry.

In the first example, the boy is tall and sexy and gorgeous, so commas are necessary. In the second and third examples, you probably wouldn’t say, “He was a scary and old man,” or, “My cute and white dress.” Who’s scary? The old man. What’s cute? My white dress. No commas required.

So, there you go. These are not, by any means, all of the comma rules that are out there, but this should get you started.

Next time we’ll be hearing from some of the lesser used, but as frequently abused, punctuation marks, such as the apostrophe and semicolon. Anything specific you would like to read about? Leave a comment below or email me at

Recommended references:

Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D; The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition; The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Sources used for this article:
“English Grammar” by SparkCharts; Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D; A Pocket Style Manual, Fifth Edition by Diana Hacker; The Little Red Writing Book by Brandon Royal; Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss; Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty; Schoolhouse Rock; The Purdue Online Writing Lab; my friend Jess’s “Kip’s Comma Cheat Sheet” doc.
ElleCC betas for – among others – americnxidiot,, and occasionally Pastiche Pen. Her love of commas and all other manner of punctuation is bone deep, regardless of her pesky Computer Science degree. She is currently co-authoring The First Breath with LaViePastiche.


  1. Thank you for taking the time to do this. English isn't my mother tongue, so I've had my fair share of ugly encounters with commas while writing fanfiction...But those times are over now (hopefully). :D
    Your post answered many of my questions and the examples helped immensely. I hope there will be more!

  2. My beta SecondGlantz is a firm believer in the Oxford Comma and is constantly attempting to school me in all comma usage. She will squee with delight at this article. Nice job Elle! :)

  3. I am having flashbacks of Electric Company....what was the sound effect used for the comma again? schhhptp??

    hehe ;)

  4. This was a great essay. I can't wait until you get a chance to address apostrophes. :)

  5. Great article and great idea to have other articles related to punctuation and grammar. I am printing this out and keeping it next to my laptop! I have a pretty good grasp on the main rules of grammar, but commas are so easy to overuse.

    The links you listed are handy as well. I love the Grammar Girl's site, I've used it as a reference a few times. It's very user-friendly both in finding the rules you're looking for and in how she explains them.

  6. I love you for this. Thank you! I send you virtual cookies in gratitude.

  7. I hope you use Cultivating Organics in your apostrophe essay!

  8. i still don,t understand how to use a comma properly ' nor do i understand how to use an apostrophe.

  9. This was GREAT. Now, I want Elle to write one of these on semi-colons. I want her to put the monkey smack down on em...

    Oh, and I LOVE the title of this essay. It made me laugh.

  10. This is very thorough- I'm going to share it with the other betas over at PTB. Thank you!

    And P.S.- The Muppets' "Twelve Days of Christmas" is hands down the best holiday song ever!

  11. The comma splice is my own personal comma pet peeve when betaing and when reading. Makes me all crazy-like. Grrr.

  12. Thank you so much for this article. As a new fanfic writer, and a writer in general, I appreciate this, tremendously.

  13. *claps* That's why I love this blog :)

  14. Thanks for taking the time to write this.

  15. i love you so much for this. i think we definitely need lesson's on apostrophe's and em dashes as well. thank you for being so smart, mommy dork! <3 <3 <3

  16. "I do believe in commas! I do, I do!"

    Great article, Elle! Thanks so much for doing this. I'll be using it as a reference for authors when I beta through PTB. :)

  17. I will also be printing this out and taping it to the wall next to my writing space, because I'm comman faily. Thank you for writing this. My betas thank you too.

  18. Do you want to hear nerdy English profs debate like idiots on a college campus?? Bring up the Oxford Comma. It is loathed and loved equally. There is even a facebook fan page dedicated to this little comma. I don't use it but that is only because I am traumatized by all of the red marks I received in middle school when my mom SWORE that it was RIGHT and my English teacher said it was wrong. *cowering preteen Emibella*

    Great job, Elle. I have been to seminars on comma use and your crib sheet is worthy of the APA. :)

  19. I really love you for doing this. Commas are the bane of my existence, along with Deadward and Lady Gaga <3

  20. I'm singing Vampire Weekend's "Oxford Comma" song.

    Loved this. Think we can get something on ellipses and dashes?

  21. Great resource- thanks for writing!!

  22. OH so cool! english isnt my naitive so i struggle with it EVERY DAY. and yes i know i should have bought a grammar book and learn my self. but i am lazy! BUt THIS WAS SO USEFUL! THANK U!

  23. Great article! Not boring at all. I loved the exemples.
    I would love a post on dashes. I have major problems with those...


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