Tips for effective comma use

Commas: we either love them or hate them. Unfortunately, comma use is not a ‘take it or leave it’ issue. Although some people would love to litter their sentences incessantly with commas and others would love to never see a comma again, accurate writers do not usually have the luxury of choice. Commas serve specific purposes; to disregard those grammatical purposes for the pleasure of our personal desires only invites confusion.

The comma battle–it doesn’t have to be like this!  

Use commas in a series:

We all know that a series should be separated with commas. But one issue remains a big question mark (yes, I am making a punctuation joke!): do we need a comma before the coordinating conjunction? The answer is simply yes. This may shock some of you and outrage others. But according to MLA, APA, and Chicago, there most certainly should be a comma inserted before the final conjunction.

Use commas in an introduction:

The major guidelines of style agree that a comma should be used to separate a long introductory phrase or clause. Of course, this leads one to question the interpretation of the word long.

The general rule is that a phrase or clause of five or more words is long enough to justify a comma.

Beware that certain words and phrases almost always have commas after them (even though they are only one word or two words in length). These include therefore, furthermore, moreover, for instance, for example, consequently, and meanwhile.

Use commas to elaborate:

Whether you use the terms non-essential or non-restrictive, the point is the same: if you want the element for elaboration, separate it with commas. This is the most confusing issue for people, but it is a critical issue as it can alter the entire meaning of your sentence. More on comma usage can be found here.

Clauses and phrases for elaboration:

  • Are set off with commas
  • Describe the ‘only one’
  • Often begin with which
  • Ex: The Elements of Style, which costs $9.95, is not in stock. (This tells me that there is only one Elements of Style. The price is just a bit of extra information.)
  • Ex: Students, who study their rubrics carefully, tend to succeed in school. (This tells me that all students tend to succeed in school and that all students study their rubrics carefully.)

Just as there are times when commas are required, there are other times when commas are forbidden. Barring the necessary separation of unnecessary elements, commas should never be used in certain instances.

Do not use commas to clarify:

Whether you use the terms essential or restrictive, the point is the same: if you need the element for clarity, avoid using commas. As already stated, this critical issue can alter the entire meaning of your sentence. Compare the clarity examples below with the elaboration examples above.

Clauses and phrases for clarity:

  • Are not set off with commas
  • Clarify ‘which one’
  • Often begin with that
  • Ex: The Elements of Style that costs $9.95 is not in stock. (This tells me which Elements of Style is not in stock; there may be another one available that costs more or less than $9.95.)
  • Ex: Students who study their rubrics carefully tend to do well in school. (This only tells me that the students who study their rubrics do well in school; it does not tell me about the students who do not study their rubrics.)

Do not use commas to separate the subject and verb:

Ex: The bee landed on a flower. NOT: The bee, landed on a flower. (Do not separate bee and landed.)

Ex: The buzzing, striped insect landed on a flower. NOT: The buzzing, striped insect, landed on a flower. (Do not separate insect and landed.)

Ex: Buzzing and chirping are two sounds commonly made by flying creatures. NOT: Buzzing and chirping, are two sounds commonly made by flying creatures. (Do not separate buzzing and chirping and are.)

Do not use commas to separate the verb and object:

Ex: The boy threw the ball. NOT: The boy threw, the ball. (Do not separate threw and the ball.)

Ex: The boy laughed at the dog and threw the ball. NOT: The boy laughed at the dog and threw, the ball. (Do not separate threw and the ball.)

Ex: The boy laughed at the dog and threw the ball as far as he could. NOT: The boy laughed at the dog and threw, the ball as far as he could. (Do not separate threw and the ball.)

There are many more rules for comma use and comma avoidance, such as for dates, locations, compounds, independent clauses, dependent clauses, and any combination of these. Fortunately, the editors at WordsRU are skilled in the appropriate use of commas for any situation and any style guide.

What are your pet peeves about commas?

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