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
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
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.
Exception: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
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
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.
Exception: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.
Note:The dash and colon can also be used to fix some comma splices, but not all.
To set off a present participial phrase
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
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.
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.
Note: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: “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: 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: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Books:Painless Grammar by Rebecca Elliott, Ph.D; The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition; The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Online: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, in.a.blue.bathrobe, 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.