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Pause….Let’s Talk About Commas

Updated: Mar 2



Pause….Let’s Talk About Commas


Even native English speakers have trouble writing the language, especially when it comes to punctuation. One of the most confusing punctuation marks is the comma. A comma is used to indicate a separation of elements within a sentence. The comma is super important, but it is common for it to be used incorrectly. Nearly every sentence you write challenges your understanding of the rules governing its usage. Here are some basics to follow when you are unsure about this mysterious little mark.


1. Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction to connect two independent clauses. (Coordinating conjunctions: for, and, but, so, or, yet, nor.)


Correct

“Billy paid for dinner the last time, so Sandy is buying the concert tickets and the refreshments.”


Incorrect

“Billy paid for dinner the last time so Sandy is buying the concert tickets and the refreshments.”


2. Use the Oxford Serial Comma


When listing items, the Serial comma is placed before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more. While there is debate among experts about the rule, for clarity’s sake it is better to use the Serial comma since it reduces the chances of misunderstandings.


To borrow a silly example, notice the difference in meaning in the sentences below.


“I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

This could be read as meaning that my parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.


“I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.”

Adding the Serial comma clarifies that I love my parents, I love Lady Gaga, and I love Humpty, all three separate elements.


3. Use a comma to separate two adjectives when their order can be changed and the word “and” can be put between them.


Correct

“The first thing Margaret bought after she moved to Quebec was a pair of warm, stylish snow boots.”


Incorrect

“The first thing Margaret bought after she moved to Quebec was a pair of warm stylish snow boots.”


Notice that it would sound fine to say, “warm and stylish snow boots,” or “stylish, warm snow boots.” In this case, we need commas to separate them.


Do not use commas between adjectives that cannot be reordered and separated with “and”.


Correct

“We made a rich chocolate layer cake for Juan’s birthday.”

“He loves his big red tricycle.”


These adjectives build on each other and cannot change their order, so we don’t separate them with commas.


4. Use a comma after a dependent clause when it starts the sentence.


Correct

“Because the headlights were left on, the car battery died.”

“Although the forecast calls for rain, we are going ahead with our plans for the hike.


By definition,

  • An independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a complete sentence.

  • A dependent clause begins with a subordinating conjunction and has a subject and a verb but does not express a complete idea. Therefore, it cannot stand alone as a sentence.

Dependent clause: When the headlights were left on

Independent clause: the car battery died.


Notice that we can also reverse the order of the clauses, in which case no comma is needed.


Correct

“The car battery died because the headlights were left on.”

“We are going ahead with our plans for the hike although the forecast calls for rain.


5. Use a comma to surround the name or title of a person directly addressed in the sentence, or a proper noun added to clarify a previously stated pronoun.


“You, Jeanette, are a very picky eater!”

“My cousin, Malcolm, is a cardiologist in Spain.”


It’s easy to see how this small, quarrel-causing mark can cause anxiety. To struggle with comma usage is common for native and non-native English speakers. Nevertheless, by implementing these tips, a well-respected writer of English you are sure to become!

 

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