Overcome the comma!

Puny but powerful, the itsy bitsy comma remains a foe to many folks striving to use good grammar. The comma is among the most confusing and misused punctuation marks in English grammar. Some people place a comma whenever they pause in their proofreading. While this strategy is a good guide, it is not foolproof. Some guys have a vague recollection of grade-school grammar and guess at the comma’s proper placement. The problem here is that the rules get muddled over time. We see commas used incorrectly in print everyday, and for most of us, grammar school was a long time ago. Many folks seem to add commas whenever the mood strikes them, while others avoid commas entirely. For everyone who wants to overcome the comma, here are my 10 comma rules to remember.
1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by one of the following words (known as coordinating conjunctions): and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. For example: “She likes to read, and I like to write.” However, in the example “I like to run and swim,” no comma is needed because there is only one independent clause.
2. Use commas after introductory clauses, phrases, or words that come before the main clause. Don’t put a comma after the main clause when a dependent clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast, for example: They said they were not sleepy, although they fell asleep immediately).
3. Use commas to set off nonessential clauses, phrases, and words that occur in the middle of a sentence. Use one comma before the nonessential information to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause. To determine if the sentence element is essential, leave out the clause, phrase, or word, to see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, then the element in question is nonessential and should be set off with commas. Here is an example of a nonessential clause: The girl, who happened to be a member of the club, was late for dinner.
4. 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. You can decide if two adjectives in a row are coordinate by asking 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? If you answer “yes” to these questions, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. Here are some examples of coordinate and non-coordinate adjectives: She was a difficult, stubborn child (coordinate). They lived in a white frame house (non-coordinate).
5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series. For example: The child enjoys playing baseball, reading comic books, and watching television.
6. Use a comma prior to adding a quotation. The coach instructed his team, “You have the ability to win if you maintain your focus.”
7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate (equal status) elements. For example: The girl said her favorite subject was history, not science.
8. Use commas to set off items in dates March 13, 1992, was the day we became best friends. (When using only the month and the year in a sentence, no comma is necessary. For example:  My first trip to Florida in March 1992 is still vivid in my mind.)
9. Use commas to set off geographical names. For example: Charleston, South Carolina, is a city rich in history.
10. Use commas to avoid confusion. For example: Tell the doctor, pepper is one of your asthma triggers. Or better yet: Tell Christopher, Columbus discovered America.
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About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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23 Responses to Overcome the comma!

  1. Ward Tipton says:

    You may have to make exceptions for “and” and “but” if you are writing for the AP but still nice to see I am not the only one who recollects the importance and power of the written word. However, as with any weapon, it must be wielded properly in order to utilize its power.


  2. This is simply, just fabulous, and I absolutely love it, I am now off, to tell everyone “Rob’s Megaphone is where it is at”, thank you, and have a very, very, very, very, nice day!!!

    Can we talk; about the proper use; of semi-colons; next?

  3. jcrn says:

    I need to have this one posted above my computer and refer to it often. Of the rules you note, can you list any that you recall any glaring errors being taught in recent years? I do.

    I ask this because I had an English teacher who taught some very different rules. There was another English teacher who differed from the first. This led to much confusion. I do wonder how and why rules about commas change. I confess I am more prone to errors when using commas. I get confused about it or am torn between what one teacher told me versus the advice of another teacher. Even the style books get contradictory advice and each magazine or online site seems to follow a particular form unique to that site, leading to even more confusion. Sorry for any comma errors in this thesis of a comment.

  4. lientoo says:

    Very educational. Need alot of it. Tthanks.

  5. chris says:

    oh if you ever saw my grammar. Thanks for the fun and informative post. This was really helpful!

  6. I have 6-10 down. If I could only get 1-5. I would be in good shape.

  7. Pete Nicely says:

    Great list. You number ten is the reason that commas will always be somewhat confusing, as confusing is always in the eye of the beholder.

  8. Raul Hummins says:

    Here’s a simple rule that works for me. The way I see it is that commas remind me of my mother in law. Whenever there’s a place in a sentence where I would put my mother in law I put a comma instead.

  9. OBA says:

    The child enjoys playing baseball, reading comic books, and watching television.

    With the writing group I am with they say no comma before the and?? So which is right??

  10. The comma in the series rule in all English grammar books says to include the last comma in a series. Journalism style books say when writing for newspapers omit the last comma in a series. AP Style rules and English grammar rules don’t always coincide.

  11. Thanks for the info. I have always had the hardest time with commas.

  12. globalgirl says:

    Commas are purposeful, all the time. Great post.

  13. timethief says:

    I’m amazed and chagrined to discover how much I have forgotten about the proper use of commas. Thank you so much for this article which I have bookmarked for future reference.

  14. But what are clauses? What are independent clauses? Your advice will help those who are at least aware of these elements of grammar. Far too often, though, I find students in college who are not aware of these concepts. Those who are, though, will benefit. And those who aren’t might now go out and try and figure out what these various grammatical things of which you speak are.

    I’m going to add this link to a comment on my comma post, which simply points to other resources on the web, because I haven’t had the nerve to try to write directions myself.

  15. Barry says:

    A cool, comprehensive,categorically linguistic, cornucopia of common comma correctness! (why I used alliteration I have no clue)

  16. Mike says:

    These are great tips.

  17. Always good to read about baseball and its players, I’ve played since a kid..

    Can I ask though – how did you get this picked up and into google news?

    Very impressive, is it something that is just up to Google or you actively created?

    Obviously this is a popular blog with great data so well done on your seo success..

  18. Anne Coleman says:

    This is a really awesome resource, Rob. I’m the queen of comma overuse. I’m constantly second-guessing myself and this is great to have to refer back to!

  19. Jack Payne says:

    i’m lucky Rob, placing, commas comes, naturally,for me. I don’t know, what it is, but I have a, sixth sense of, where to place commas. It’s like, playing piano, by ear I, guess.

  20. Joanne says:

    What about using a comma before “too” and “as well” when they are at the end of a sentence?

  21. Maris Plathe says:

    I’ve been here a few times and it appears like your articles get more informative every time. Keep it up I appreciate reading them.

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