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Lightning Lessons in Writing: How to Use the Comma

All too often, inexperienced writers view, or worse, use, the comma as a pause in a sentence.  While it’s true that we pause at commas, as we would any mark of punctuation, that is not their function any more than the function of a period is a pause, or a semi-colon or colon are pauses.  The period, or full stop, signals to the reader that one point has finished and another is about to begin.  The semi-colon effectively bridges two independent clauses, while the colon may be used to create lists, or forcefully drive home the point the author is attempting to make: that commas do more than pause.  A comma, like other marks of punctuation, effectively tells the reader that something is coming, and that the reader needs to prepare for a shift in what follows.  Commas separate.  And failing to understand how they do so produces effects from the hilarious, to the heretical.  The comma, next to the period, is by far the most used, and therefore misused and abused, of all punctuation marks.  Here’s how to do it right.

According to Lynn Truss’s grammatically glorious, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, there are seven guidelines for comma usage.  These are, in order of appearance in her book: 1. To create lists. 2. To join different parts of a sentence.  3. To fill gaps.  4. To introduce direct speech, quotes.  5. To set off interjections.  6. To create weak interruptions; this one is a variation on rule 5.  7.  Don’t use them like a stupid person.  Her words, not mine.

Rule 1.  Creating Lists.  Here’s a sign I saw of picture of online recently: “Attention Toilet Only for Disabled Elderly Pregnant Children.”  What?!  Now you will forever have that image in your head.  The rule here is that you are generally able to place a comma anywhere there may be an “and” or and “or” in between the adjectives: “Attention: Toilet Only for those that are: Disabled or Elderly or Pregnant or (for) Children”.  The comma takes the place, in this specific case, of “or.”  Then there’s the cover of Tails magazine, featuring Rachel Ray that reads: “Rachel Ray enjoys cooking her family and her dog”.  She’s probably a descendant of the Donner’s.  Commas save lives kids.  Learn to use them proper-like and avoid unfortunate dinner-time conversations; or maybe unfortunate dinners.  I’m not going to get into the Oxford comma, but you may want to look it up so as to avoid making other hilarious mistakes.

Rule 2.  Joining parts of a sentence.  Often, the comma will be used to indicate a shift in the sentence, such as in the case when a writer is adding to or contradicting a point.  Commas frequently appear before words and phrases such as, “also”, “and”, “or”, “however”, “although”, “and yet”, “moreover”, “in other words”, etc.  The writer has made a point, and either wants to add an additional point, explain a little further, or perhaps shift direction completely: “It seemed like a good idea at the time, and yet all my instincts were wrong”.

Rule 3.  Filling Gaps.  There are times when commas may take the place of whole words or phrases.  Admittedly, writers, in general, don’t use this form much these days.  We don’t often see sentences in contemporary fiction such as, “Brooke loved dogs; Parker, cats.”  Here, the comma takes the place of the word “loved”, which is implied from the first clause.  However, journalists use it in that way all the time; here are some recent headlines: “Melania Trump is greeted in Ghana, visits baby clinic”.  “US blasts international court on Iran ruling, pulls out of 1955 treaty.”  If you’re not completely comfortable with using the comma, this method can be tossed.  That being said, it may serve to provide additional variety to sentence constructs while conveying a sense of style, sophistication.  (See what I did there?)

Rule 4. Commas Before Direct Speech.  Commas are not the only way to introduce a quote.  Colons are probably more frequent.  It will depend on the structure of the sentence and how it’s phrased.  Depending on syntax, authors may choose no punctuation mark at all.  They may choose to role the quote directly into the sentence without breaking stride.  Here are different ways of using the same quote.  For example, consider Wordsworth’s characterization of Romantic poetry as being that of the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  I didn’t use any punctuation there; but I might have penned something like, “In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth defined poetry as follows: ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.’”   Or perhaps,  “On the relationship between poetry and emotion, Wordsworth argues, ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”  Writers have to be careful with this rule.  The comma has literally caused schisms in the Christian Church.  Consider Luke, chapter 23 verse 43.  The language varies, but here is the essence of the passage: “Truly I tell you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”  That’s from the New International Standard Version.  But take the comma after “you” and place it after today and you get a radically different meaning.

Rule 5.  Commas Setting off Interjections. A couple examples will do.  “Shit, that hurt!”  Or, “Damn, that was close!”

Rule 6.  Commas that Come in Pairs. This one is a variation on rule 5.  In essence, an interjection is a part of a sentence that can be completely removed without changing the entire meaning of the sentence.  For instance: “Learning to write well, no matter what type of writer you want to be, takes lots of practice and patience.”  Remove the phrase between the commas and the sentence says the same thing: “Learning to write well takes practice and patience.”  Whenever you insert a dependent clause of qualifying or clarifying phrase into a sentence, it needs to be set off by punctuation.

Rule 7.  Don’t use them like an idiot.  The grandma and Rachel Ray examples above are instances of this.  Being hyper aware of the comma’s function ensures that writers will never misuse a comma by inserting one as a pause in a sentence where it is not needed due to the fact that the writer may feel their sentence may be somewhat verbose or paraphrastic or even that their readers may need to breathe.  Here are a couple more examples.  This one is from the side of a Dairy Queen Blizzard cup: “Made with Girl Scouts, Peanut Butter Patties, rich peanut butter and creamy vanilla soft serve.”  Or how about this one: “A woman without her man is nothing.”  Try: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” Or maybe, “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”  Which do you prefer?

Using the comma properly helps improve your writing by giving it clarity, concision, precision, and occasionally a scathing wit.  It adds length to sentences by providing dependent clauses and interjections; it can reduce the number of words used in a sentence by standing in for words and phrases; it can completely alter the meaning of a sentence because, in many cases, the comma may lend extra stress to the word preceding it thereby suggesting it be read in one manner rather than another—as in the Biblical example.  Learning to use the comma requires writers to be particularly thoughtful about what they’re saying and how they are saying it.  Read your sentences out loud to yourself if you’re uncertain.  Pause at the comma and then ask yourself what effect that pause has, or how it changes the sentence.  Keeping these rules and these principles in mind when using the comma will help to ensure your writing achieves what it sets out to do.

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