Your Friend, the Comma

CommaFriendComma, common. Yes, commas are common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.

Strangely enough, this common little punctuation mark intimidates legions of writers. Others treat it in a cavalier fashion. I admit to being one of the latter. In 1984, I flippantly told Kay DuPont, a national speaker and author of a book on grammar and punctuation that “I punctuate intuitively and put commas where I think I need them.” Was that pity I saw in her glance?

When I saw buckets of red ink the Lighthouse Point Press editors sloshed all over my first book, Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts, I realized I needed to get serious about learning proper comma usage. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that commas are quite friendly.

The main thing to remember is that commas cue readers’ eyes to pause for just a whiff of breath to tide them over to the end of a sentence. They sort information inside the sentence, clustering words into meaningful chunks. The guidelines below cover the main areas of confusion:

Use a comma before conjunctions – words that join two sentences into one

The most common of these words are and, but and or. For example,

“I am starting a new story now, but Nancy is still editing hers.”

Only use the comma if the two parts can stand alone as whole sentences, as they can above. Do not use commas to set off compound subjects or predicates:

“The lawn was green and was freshly mown.”

Use a comma before an introductory group of words

Any time you have a phrase or clause preceding the subject, set it off with a comma.

If you want people to read your story, you’d better tell them you wrote one.”

When you fail to use commas well, readers may become confused.”

If your clause is very short, three words or under, and it is clear without the comma, you may omit it. Too many commas create clutter. However, words like “however” should be set off. Good judgment on your part in using commas and selecting proof readers should cover this base.

Use a comma between parts in a series.

Most people are familiar with this rule when simple words are involved. It also applies to phrases and clauses. For example:

“Both the Italian and Mexican flags are comprised of red, green and white stripes.”

“I must clean the kitchen, fold laundry and mow the lawn today.”

“Sally is vacationing in Arizona, Jan is visiting her family in Maine and Ellen is staying home this year.”

You may notice that the final element in each sentence lacks a comma. You may recall learning in English class once upon a time that this is the correct and modern way to punctuate. Yes and no. It is correct, especially for casual usage. More formal usage puts what’s referred to as “the Oxford comma” in that series, as my editors for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing required me to do. Whichever convention you choose, use it consistently within a manuscript, whether that’s a story or a book.

Use pairs of commas to set off interjections

Any time you have a word, phrase or clause that interrupts the flow of a sentence, set it off with a pair of commas.

“Sarah will, of course, be delighted to hear we are having chocolate cake for dessert.”

“The content of a memoir should always, realizing that memory is sometimes fallible, be true.”

Help is at hand

Should you get jammed up and feel insecure about commas and other grammatical things, always remember Google is your friend. Or Yahoo. Or Bing. The web is brimming with helpful sites to guide you to punctuation perfection.

Another tool that may be more confusing than not is Word’s grammar check function. It is good at comma use, and I advise always working through its recommendations as a final proof-reading step. Just remember that it makes lots of miscalls, so use good sense and check other sources if you have any questions.

One more tool that’s helped thousands is the punctuation overview in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Click on that title to order your copy now if you don’t already have one.

Write now: use the guidelines above to check comma usage in a couple of stories. Then check your comma skills with a short quiz at GrammarBook.com. Find a paragraph or two that you’re wondering about and paste them into “The World’s Best Grammar Checker” at Grammarly.com.

12 comments :

Jan Golden said...

Thanks for this, Sharon. Thankfully one member of our group of writers, Susan Powell Miller, is our version of the Comma Police. I really appreciate her.

karen Walker said...

Ahem, was this written for a certain writer friend of yours living in NM? Thanks, this is wonderfully helpful.

Sharon said...

Diverse talents are what make writing groups Golden. ;>]

Sharon said...

Karen, enough of the paranoia. Comma confusion is rampant world-wide.

Marian Beaman said...

This post recalls lecture notes from teaching days. To lighten the grimness of grammar review for college freshmen, I used the short sentence "Let's eat Grandma" [Let's be clear; use a comma please!]. Another example: Woman without her man is a savage. [Move the commas, change the culprit!]

Sharon said...

Thanks for the additional examples Marian. I'll bet students love being in your classes. I just noticed that Lynn Truss has excerpted material from Eats, Shoots and Leaves into an illustrated book with the subtitle, Why Commas Make a Difference. The preview its Amazon page, http://ow.ly/zlKHD, is hilarious.

Marian Beaman said...

I remember reading Lynn's book - hilarious indeed! Thanks for sharing the link.

Joan Z Rough said...

Thanks, Sharon. I am one who punctuates "intuitively." :-) This post is a great help.

Sharon said...

You are welcome Joan. You'll save your beta readers barrels of red ink by catching your own comma infractions. Readers don't necessarily notice when things are punctuated well, but they do notice when commas are missing and they have to stop and figure things out. For example sentences like Marian cites: "Let's eat Grandma." Say what?

Carol Bodensteiner said...

Well explained, Sharon. Since the rules may vary, you make an important point when you say, "Whichever convention you choose, use it consistently."

Sharon said...

Thanks Carol. I never cease to be amazed how many otherwise strong writers are buffaloed by commas.

Shirley Hershey Showalter said...

Great way to simplify the grammar lesson, Sharon. I went over these items oodles of times when I taught intro writing classes. Things improved when I started taking a point off the grade for every comma error. But my own best editor is my husband. He catches all the little misplaced demons. :-)