Commas and their usage have arisen in my conversations with clients again lately, so I felt it was time to dust off a piece I wrote last year on managing them. If you have seen this post already, there is nothing new here–commas and their usage don’t evolve with our changing language.
Since the usage of commas is slow to evolve, why are they so difficult to figure out? And conversely, why do some people get so jacked up over misplaced commas?
The rules are a little confusing at first because there are several exceptions. Remember, for the casual reader, misplaced commas are like road signs gone rogue–one minute everything is fine and the next you are going the wrong way down a one way street and don’t know how you got there.
Commas and the rules for their use exist for a reason, and if we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.
I am a decent structural editor, but I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about commas.
However, I do know some things:
- Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
- Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the narrative differently.
- Do not put a comma after a conjunction. If needed, commas go before conjunctions.
Commas are the rules of the road for writing. They are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find their pauses between clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses.
One rule I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:
- Do not place a comma before ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.
What? That’s not what I was taught in school!
The Chicago Manual Online gives this example (and I quote):
He didn’t run, because he was afraid.
He didn’t run because he was afraid.
In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary. The main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but fear was not the reason he did so.
Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains this well. “You don’t automatically put a comma before the word because, but sometimes you need a comma there to make sure your meaning is clear.”
We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:
- In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.
I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.
A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.
However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.
Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package.
A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are actually standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.
Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.
- If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
- If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.
I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! Mrs. Downing very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses, and she was right.”
I’m sorry, but Mrs. Downing probably explained that. It just didn’t stick in your memory.
Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and.’ Did I just contradict myself?
Think of it like a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea.
Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.
Oh YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion! You’ve all seen the meme: I love cooking my pets and my family. On a personal level, I do love cooking, my pets, and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas.
One of my favorite personal failings is the notorious comma splice. Apparently, it’s bad form to join two independent clauses with a simple comma. This error is called a comma splice.
I have it on good authority that a comma splice will not cause a tear in the space-time continuum. But since this breach of humanity occasionally sends commacentrics into a frothing frenzy, we will use the conjunction and give these poor wretches a break.
From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English.”
Commas and their proper use can drive you crazy when you are trying to get your work in order. And quite frankly, the rules are a little confusing.
Consistency is critical. UK usage can vary from US usage in some ways. Find a style guide that you can understand and consult it. Once you have a guide you can work with, use those suggestions consistently in all your work.
I use the Chicago Manual of Style for my work because I am a US citizen, and for creative writing, this is the most comprehensive manual and is what publishers and editors use. If you are strapped for cash, you can often buy secondhand copies of this manual through Amazon.
Commas can easily get out of control for me because I tend to hit the comma key whenever I pause in my thinking when I am in the first draft phase. At that point, I am more concerned with just getting the words down than I am form and style.
However, proper form and style must come into play when we get into the later drafts. Using established protocols for punctuation is important if you want your readers to understand what you meant when you wrote that amazing piece of literature.
Sources and Attributions:
Large portions of this post were first published by Connie J. Jasperson © 2016-2017 under the title, Commas, Morsels of madness or necessary evils? on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on January 25, 2016. It has been re-edited and recycled.
Commas, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, © http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas/faq0018.html accessed 08-02-2017 The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition text © 1982, 1993, 2003 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style Online © 2006, 2007, 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style is a registered trademark of The University of Chicago.
The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, Commas, ©2010-2017 http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/search/site/commas accessed 08-02-2017