Grappling With Grammar - The Comma

Part One

Poor little comma, it’s one of the most misunderstood and misused of all the grammar tools. There are so many ways you can go wrong with the comma: serial commas, comma splices, commas and conjunctions. Who isn’t confused by a comma?

I don’t remember the name of the teacher who taught us grammar in grade school, but the one piece of advice that stuck with me regarding comma usage was to put in a comma wherever there’s a natural pause in a sentence. It took my high school English teacher four years of hard work to break me of this habit.

You may be convinced that the comma was invented purely to plague students and writers everywhere. While it’s true there’s a lot of dos and don’ts when it comes to the comma, it’s really not as intimidating as most people believe. Let’s start with a short guide to the proper use of commas:

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by a coordinating conjunction: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

Examples: The dance was over, but the dancers refused to leave.
He baited the trap with care, yet he was unable to catch the mouse.

2. Use commas after introductory clauses, phrases, or words that come before the main clause.

Common starter words for introductory clauses that should be followed by a comma include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, while.
Examples: If the rain ever stops, we should go for a walk.
While she was sleeping, the dog snuck into the bedroom and curled up on the bed.

Common introductory phrases that should be followed by a comma include participial and infinitive phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential appositive phrases, and long prepositional phrases (over four words).
Examples: If you want a seat, you’d better come early.
Having finished her lunch, she went back to work.

Common introductory words that should be followed by a comma include yes, however, well.
Examples: However, the dog was never the same again.
Yes, you may have the last cookie.

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.

If you answer yes to any of the following questions:
•If you leave out the clause, phrase, or word, does the sentence still make sense?
•Does the clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence?
•If you move the element to a different position in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense?
. . . then the word, phrase, or clause in question is nonessential and should be offset with commas.
Clause: Tomorrow, which was the day her mother died, is the only day she can do the grocery shopping.
Phrase: The music was breathtaking. The lyrics, on the other hand, were uninspiring.
Word: I see what you mean. If I were you, however, I’d get rid of that aardvark.

4. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

Examples: She chose roses, lilies, and peonies.
The recipe calls for a pat of butter, a dollop of cream, and a cup of sugar.

5. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun.

Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal status in describing the noun; neither adjective is subordinate to the other. If you answer yes to the following questions:
•Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written in reverse order?
•Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written with and between them?
. . . then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma.
He was an easy-going, happy-go-lucky man. (coordinate)
He lived in a log house. (non-coordinate)

6. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

Examples: She wasn’t gullible, just naïve.
The girl seemed pensive, almost melancholy.

7. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer to the beginning or middle of the sentence.

She waved at the approaching boy, smiling brightly.
Smiling brightly, she waved at the boy.
Waving at the boy, she smiled brightly.

8. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

London, Ontario, is very different from London, England.
May 9, 1899, was when the lawn mower was patented.
Note: When you use just the month and the year, no comma is necessary.
Example: The rainfall for April 2011 was pretty much average.

9. Use a comma to shift between the main text and a quotation or when using dialogue.

Elliot Smith once said, “Playing it safe is the most popular way to fail.”
“I wonder,” she said thoughtfully, “if Betty Crocker started this way.”

10. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

To George, Harrison had been a sort of idol.

As you can see, the comma has a wide variety of uses. Next week we’ll take a look at some of the misuses and pitfalls of the comma.


Heidi Sutherlin said...

This is the BEST day ever! I'm not a comma abuser!

*wildly happy dancing about*

I read each rule, but found that I use all of them (or nearly all) properly. Sure, I may have some issues, but I'm not the abusive comma freak I thought I was.

Hooray! You just made my day, Carol. Now, when you look at my MS, even if I am a comma freak we shall not speak directly of it. I will quietly fix all faults and generally pretend we were talking about typos.

*clears throat*

Holly Ruggiero said...

I don't like the new trend (and I do call it a trend even though it is deemed "appropriate") of dropping the last commas in a series.

For example, "She chose roses, lilies and peonies."

C R Ward said...

Good for you Heidi! This makes your editor very happy. :-)

Holly: The dropping of the last comma in a series is only used when it will not cause confusion and even then usually only in journalism. I don't like the trend either.