How to Use a Comma

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Let’s eat, grandma!

Commas can be tricky things. In this post, I will give you a crash course in using a comma in your writing.

There are four instances that require a comma: a list that contains three or more items, a sentence with two independent clauses, a list of two or more adjectives, and a sentence where a dependent clause comes before an independent clause.

Okay, that sounds fancy and all, but what does that mean?

Lists, Lists, and Lists

Please buy some apples, carrots, leeks, oranges, and a can of soup.

There needs to be a comma between each item in a list of three or more (note the comma before the “and”, this is called the Oxford Comma). This helps the reader make sense of what you are saying by creating a semi-break or pause between each word.

Note: Oxford COmma

The Oxford Comma (sometimes called the serial comma) is place before the penultimate (second to last) item in a list (Edwards, n.d.). Basically, it comes before the “and”, just like in the above example. It is a stylistic comma – meaning that it is not important to the meaning of the sentence. You’ll find that most academic institutions strongly prefer the use of this comma (take note).

Personally, I am all for it. It looks neater and avoids confusion – which is as much as you can ask of punctuation, actually.

Two Independent Clauses

She would love to go to the movies, but she doesn’t have any time.

Put simply, an independent clause is a sentence that can stand by itself. In the example, both parts of the sentence can stand alone. What unites them is the conjunction “but” (note that this isn’t the only part of speech for this word). In this case, “but” creates a contrast between the two clauses.

This is likely to be the most common kind of sentence you will encounter in your writing. Other words that can be used to connect two clauses are: or, for, so, and, nor, yet. Without this connecter, the sentence becomes bulky and confusing (this is called a run-on sentence).

Not sure if there are two independent clauses? Break up the sentence. If the two parts make sense without the other part, then they are independent. If you have more than two independent clauses in one sentence, you need to rewrite the sentence.

Note: A difference without a difference

Beware of using “but” when creating a list of some sort. For example: he was tall, but had a grey beard. This is a difference without a difference. You can’t contrast height with having a beard or not, it’s two different things.

Adjectives

She is a smart, organised teacher.

An adjective is a word that describes a noun. A comma is needed where there are two or more of them. Note that there won’t be a comma if the sentence read “She is a smartly organised teacher”, because “smart” has been changed into an adverb – a word that describes a verb or adjective.

Note: When to use an Adverb?

Never.

It’s like using the word “very”. It shows poor vocabulary. You are not very tired, you are exhausted. Avoid adverbs and your writing will improve greatly. On that note, also try to limit the use of adjectives. While not as damning as adverbs, they can sometimes be unnecessary. Unless a adjective is essential to the meaning of the noun, don’t use it.

Dependent and Independent Clauses

Because he didn’t read the instructions, the lawnmower didn’t work.

The first part of the sentence (before the comma) is the dependent clause. Why? Because, on its own, it does not make sense – the word “because” would cause the confusion there. The second part of the sentence can stand on its own. By using the comma, the second part of the sentence makes sense of the first.

Note that the sentence can be changed around to avoid using the comma: “The lawnmower didn’t work because he didn’t read the instructions.” This would be a better way to construct the sentence in the first place.

Other Uses

  • When you start sentences with an adverb (careful), such as finally, surprisingly, etc., or conjunctions such as however, unless, but, furthermore, moreover, etc. Also, starting sentences with yes and no and the like, require a comma.
  • When addressing someone (A.K.A using a pronoun): “Laura, when are you making cupcakes again?”
  • Adding extra information in the midst of a sentence: “He hit an animal, a reindeer, on his way to the coast”. The “a reindeer” part is extra information about “an animal”. Without the comma, the sentence would not make sense. When in doubt about this one, rather have the next sentence provide the information: “He hit an animal on his way to the coast. He thought it was a reindeer.” As you can see, you can add more information if you write in short sentences like these. I’ve added something new to it by using the word “thought”.
    • Note the sentence above: “Because, on its own, it does not make sense…” The “on its own” section there is technically extra information. This requires a comma.
  • Some sources state that there should be a comma when attributing a quote (She said, “I don’t like chocolate”). I don’t entirely agree with this. The correct way is either to replace the comma with “that” and remove the quotation marks (making it reported speech) or by replacing the comma with a colon (“:”).

Writing with a Comma

Clarity is more important than cleverness.

When I first started out as a writer, I thought that better writing = bigger words, more adjectives and adverbs. As I’ve written and read more and more, I’ve realised that this simply isn’t the case. You saw what I did at the third bullet point above. You can add more meaning and complexity to your work by using short, simple sentences.

While the above might be truer of fiction writing than academic writing, both can find this helpful. Long sentences can become uncomfortable, especially if you start hunting for places to put a comma. When in doubt, break it up.

“Never use a long word when a short one will do.” – George Orwell

The Last Word

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Sources

Edwards, A. n.d. What is the Oxford Comma and why do people care so much about it? Grammarly. Available at: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/what-is-the-oxford-comma-and-why-do-people-care-so-much-about-it/ [Accessed: 16/07/2018]

Learn English with Alex. 2009. How to use commas in English writing. [Online Video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keZpj7PjNEo [Accessed: 16/07/2018]

Sterbenz, C. 2013. 13 Rules For Using Commas Without Looking Like An Idiot. Business Insider. Available at: http://www.businessinsider.com/a-guide-to-proper-comma-use-2013-9?IR=T [Accessed: 16/07/2018]

Top Image: Forbidden Books, by Alexander Mark Rossi (1897). Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

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