For such a little punctuation mark, the comma causes an awful lot of confusion.
Some writers are too liberal with commas, sprinkling them about like nuts on an ice cream sundae. Other writers hoard their commas and avoid using them whenever possible.
Why are these punctuation marks so widely misused? Why are we, collectively, so inconsistent about where we place them? One style guide says use them, another says don’t use them. Even the experts can’t agree!
But there are some rules about comma usage that we can all observe and agree on.
A comma often indicates a pause, but some pauses occur without any assistance from commas. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to simply place a comma wherever they want the reader to pause. In natural speech we all pause at different places, so this is not a prudent way to decide where your commas go. Instead, let’s look to the rules.
Unfortunately, the rules surrounding commas aren’t always clear. Comma placement is often a matter of style and personal (or editorial) choice. One could write an entire book on how to use commas effectively and correctly. Today, we’re just going to look at the basic rules.
Commas are mostly used to separate, connect, and set off elements in a sentence:
- Use a comma to separate three or more elements in a series (including items in a list). The comma that comes before the conjunction in a list is called the serial comma, and it’s recommended but not required.
- A comma should be used to separate coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are a series of adjectives that modify a single noun (in “the big, black dog,” big and black are coordinate adjectives).
- Use a comma to separate contrasting elements and if-then statements. Here’s a contrasting statement: I am writing a book, not an essay. Here’s an if-then statement: If I write a book, then I will have to market it.
- Use a comma before a conjunction to connect independent clauses. An easy way to remember how to identify an independent clause is that it can stand alone as a sentence (a dependent clause cannot). Here’s more information on commas and clauses.
- Commas should be used to set off introductory elements, short phrases that introduce sentences. Here’s an example with the introductory element in italics: As I was writing, I gave careful consideration to comma placement.
- Use commas to set off parenthetical elements. A parenthetical element often gives extra but unnecessary information and could be deleted without changing the core meaning of a sentence. Here is an example with the parenthetical element shown in italics: The writer made a list of books she wanted to read, mostly books on grammar, and then proceeded to order them. Parenthetical elements includes names: The writer, Jane, wanted to read a lot of books.
- Commas are heavily used with quotation marks. They should be placed after a dialogue tag when the dialogue follows the tag and should be placed at the end of the dialogue when the tag comes after the dialogue.
The biggest mistake writers make is using a comma for a pause. Some people are actually taught to read their work aloud and then just place commas where all the pauses go (just thinking about it makes me shudder). That is surefire way to get your manuscript all marked up in red by your editor. And if you don’t have an editor, it’s a surefire way to drive readers crazy.
Too many punctuation marks in a piece of writing are like rocks in the readers’ shoes. They are distracting and uncomfortable. Too few punctuation marks are like wearing shoes without traction on a slippery floor. Readers will slide all over the place and have trouble following your ideas.
Use commas and all other punctuation marks wisely. And keep writing.