Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Punctuation 101: The Comma

By Jill Williamson

Punctuation had never been my favorite thing. But I needed to learn the rules to look like a professional author. So do you! Trust me. One mistake here or there won’t get you rejected. But it your manuscript is filled with punctuation errors and misspellings, an agent or editor won’t keep reading.

I’ll try to explain this as simply as possible without boring you to death, but I highly recommend picking up a grammar book for your own reference. The Chicago Manual of Style is the reference for the publishing industry. Add a used copy to your wish list. It’s a great tool to have on your shelf.

I’m also not going to give you every comma rule. But here are a few that I see misused often.

Commas with Coordinating Conjunctions
There are seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. Basically, these are words that connect two clauses in a sentence. If you have a sentence that has one of those seven words in the middle, how do you now when you need a comma before the conjunction or not?

Simple. If the words on both sides of the conjunction are complete sentences by themselves, you need the comma to avoid having a run on sentence.

Ex: “Almost everyone on earth likes chocolate, but I can’t live without it.”
(You need the comma before ‘but’ because “Almost everyone on earth likes chocolate” is a complete sentence and so is “I can’t live without it.”)

If the sentence had one side that wasn’t a complete sentence on its own, a comma would be wrong. “Almost everyone on earth likes chocolate but my Aunt Sue who lives in Charlotte.” Since “My Aunt Sue who lives in Charlotte” is not a complete sentence, therefore a comma is not needed.

NOTE: For a very short sentence, you can omit the comma.
Ex: The bus departed and we were on our way.

Commas After an Introductory Word Group
When you start a sentence with an introductory word group, you need to separate it from the rest of the sentence with a comma.

Ex: When Martin was ready to eat, the waiter brought him a salad to start with.

NOTE: The comma can be omitted here in a very short sentence.
Ex: In no time we were in a different state.

Commas Between Items in a Series
When three or more items are listed in a series, those items should all be separated with commas. This applies to single words, phrases, or clauses. Note that a comma goes before the conjunction at the end of the sentence.

Ex: My favorite candy is M&M’s, Skittles, and Gummi Bears.
Ex: You can choose from going on a hike up the mountain, playing paintball in the field, going on a canoe ride, or swimming in the pool.

Commas Between Coordinating Adjectives vs. No Commas Between Cumulative Adjectives
Adjectives are coordinate if they can be joined with ‘and’ or if they can be scrambled and still make sense. Commas are required between coordinate adjectives.

Ex: Michael is a strong, tall, talented basketball player.

To test this example we first see if we can join the adjectives with ‘and’ and keep the same meaning.

Ex:  Michael is a strong and tall and talented basketball player.

Next we scramble the adjectives to see if this has an effect. Ex: Michael is a talented, strong, tall basketball player. Same meaning? Yep!

Cumulative adjectives lean on one another, with each modifying a larger word group. They do not require commas in between.

Ex: Four small white doves flew toward me.

When we test this sample joining the adjectives with ‘and’ is doesn’t work. Ex: Four and small and white and doves flew toward me.

When we scramble them, it also changes the meaning. Ex: “Small four white doves flew toward me.” This doesn’t work nor does, “White small four doves flew toward me.”

Thus ends this lesson on the comma. May you treat the little fellows well. And avoid mistakes like this:
How about you? What's the funniest comma mistake sentence you've seen?


  1. When I'm using series, I always forget to put a comma before the "and". This is probably because I'm from the Netherlands and we never put a comma before a coordinating conjunction in series. Even though I write almost always in English, I still tend to make those little mistake.
    Now I was wondering if you've got any tips on how to check for those kinds of mistakes effectively, rather than what the conventions are. I find that to be a lot of work and I always miss a lot of the smaller ones.

    1. Even in English, the comma before the final conjuction is a stylistic choice. There are different 'schools' of writing styles that say it is necessary or unnecessary.

    2. The only way I know of to check for those is to read the manuscript again and again. Proofreaders can be helpful, if you know anyone who loves to do that. You can use the Find/Replace function sometimes. I've used it to seek out my over-use of similes. So I search for the words "like a" and that helps me find them. So if you know what you're looking for exactly, the Find function can help.

    3. It is a stylistic choice with some publishers, Alice. Most go with the Chicago Manual of Style, but there are some publishers who want it the other way. And there are also some who leave it up to the author.

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  4. I don't remember any funny mistakes with commas. Too bad :D
    Thanks for the very understandable lesson again! That is a great way to check :) I tend to over-use commas sometimes...

    1. I think I tend to overuse them too! It might have something to do with the fact that I had to memorize and write out, word for word, the ten comma rules for grade 10 English.

    2. Oh, my...I like English, but only the writing parts. The grammar is WAY too strange and confusing!

  5. In my English course they have an example to show the importance of putting the comma in the right place:
    "Woman without her man is nothing."
    "Woman, without her, man is nothing."
    Of course, neither one is factually correct, but they do show how commas can change the meaning of a sentence.

    1. There's also this one.

      "Let's eat Grandpa!"
      "Let's eat, Grandpa!"

      Proper punctuation could save a person's life... :D

    2. Tiffanie stole mine. ;) Mm-hmm.

  6. When I was younger, my motto was always, "When in doubt, use a comma!" Then I got to college and...yeah. I found out I overuse commas a lot. ;)

    One of the best comma mistakes I've seen is:
    "Let's eat, Grandpa!" vs. "Let's eat Grandpa!"
    That's posted around the English Dept. of my school along with the phrase, "Commas save lives." Makes me laugh every time!

  7. lol haha! Poor dogs! Love the graphic about feeling out of place. Thanks! Grammar is always needed, and I shall try to apply this to all my work...

  8. Has anybody ever read the book "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves"? It's one of my favorites, and great for learning the ins and outs of punctuation!

    1. I've read it. I agree with you - it's a really good book!

  9. Great post - thank you so much! The last rule, about the cumulative adjectives, is my lightbulb moment for the day. I never knew that rule, but always thought it looked so much better to leave out the commas on such lists. Major relief to find out it's actually a rule! :D

  10. Nice. I might over use commas a little bit. I never heard about the "four small white doves" example or reasoning before so i always thought I needed commas. Thanks.

  11. Haha I always feel bad for punctuation, it's so misused these days. There are people who want to abolish the apostrophe. I mean, SERIOUSLY?!?!