Commas: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Them (and Some Things You Didn’t)
Commas are probably the second most feared punctuation mark in the English language, right next to the semicolon. There are lots of myths floating around about when you should and should not use commas. We’re here to set the record straight. Whenever you have a question concerning whether or not you should use a comma, just come on back to this blog post. You’re sure to find the answer.
First, let’s talk about the biggest myth in the entirety of comma lore.
Commas do NOT get put where you feel that there should be a pause. No. Wrong. Stop.
Believe me; if a sentence “sounds like” it should have a pause, most fluent speakers/readers will put one there, even without the comma. Commas serve a much more grand purpose.
Commas can be imperative to give the sentence meaning and nuance. Here are ten simple rules to help you master the comma:
Two Independent Clauses With a Coordinating Conjunction
Let’s break that down. An independent clause is essentially a handful of words that could stand alone as a sentence. That means that they have a SUBJECT and a PREDICATE. Here are some examples:
I wrote a blog.
The blog is helpful.
Everyone should read my blog.
Now, you can combine independent clauses (sentences) if they are closely related. We do this all the time, and they are commonly referred to as compound sentences. THAT’S what we’re talking about when we say two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction.
But, what’s a coordinating conjunction?
Answer: FAN BOYS
Explanation: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. FAN BOYS.
Fan boys are those little words that we use ALL THE TIME. They group things together (like clauses). Here are some examples:
I wrote the blog, and it is helpful.
Everyone should read my blog, so I shared it on Facebook.
Everyone read my blog, but now everyone thinks I’m a nerd.
As you can see, whenever we used one of those coordinating conjunctions, we have to have one of those commas there.
One more thing.
Look at a sentence like this:
I wrote the blog, and I shared it, and now everyone hates it, so I tried to delete it, but I caught my computer on fire instead.
This is also a problem. This is a RUN-ON sentence. Even though it has all of the appropriate commas, compound generally only allow for two sentences being combined at a time with commas and conjunctions. Just break it up.
One down! Let’s keep going.
Two Independent Clauses WITHOUT a Coordinating Conjunction
This is actually a time when you do NOT use a comma. We’ve already looked at what independent clauses and conjunctions are, so let’s move right into an example sentence:
I keep running out of example sentences, I should look some up on the Internet.
This looks deceptively correct. However, there is NO conjunction (FANBOY).
This is where the most feared punctuation mark comes in: the SEMICOLON. Whenever you have to independent clauses (complete sentences) stuck together without a conjunction, use a semicolon like so:
I know how to use semicolons now; I fear them no longer.
That was easy. On to rule three!
Introductory Adverbial Phrases (IAPs)
Disclaimer: I don’t know if this is the technical term or not (and I don’t exactly care), but it’s a good term, so I’m going to use it.
Let’s break it down. A phrase is like a clause, but it doesn’t have the SUBJECT and a VERB, it just has one or the other, and it certainly could not stand alone as its own sentence. Here are some examples:
In the morning
Despite being a master in all things grammar
As you can see, IAPs can be as small as a single word or quite wordy.
IAPs occur at the beginning of a sentence. (That’s why they’re called introductory.)
Earlier, we talked about SUBJECT and PREDICATE. Technically, IAPs are part of the PREDICATE (the second half of the sentence). This is because IAPs act as adverbs (hence, adverbial); adverbs describe verbs, which are the fundamental parts of PREDICATES.
Because the IAP is separated from the PREDICATE, you need to have a comma after it. It helps the reader to see that it is not a part of the subject and can avoid troublesome confusion. Here are some examples:
Before writing, I also do fifty pushups.
Unfortunately, I cannot actually do fifty pushups.
Here’s an example of how not having that comma can cause confusion:
After walking the dog sat down.
“Walking the dog” is a common phrase. However, that’s not how those words are being used in this sentence. There wasn’t someone walking the dog; the dog was walking and then sat down. It should look like this:
After walking, the dog sat down.
Any questions? Good. Let’s move on.
We’ve mentioned clauses before. They have SUBJECTS and PREDICATES. They can stand alone as independent clauses.
So what makes a clause dependent?
Dependent clauses are things that could stand alone as complete sentences, but they have a word or two in the beginning that makes them unable to do so. Here are some examples; notice how they could stand alone with the first word(s):
Although I do like writing
Before I finish these examples
Even though this is the last example
Just like IAPs, these dependent clauses act adverbially and are technically part of the PREDICATE. Ergo, they must have a comma before them for the same reason as IAP.
Easy enough, right? Right. Onward.
This is the second rule where you do not need a comma. As we’ve mentioned quite a few times before, sentences have SUBJECTS and PREDICATES. In a circumstance where you have a compound predicate, you have a sentence with one SUBJECT performing two actions (two PREDICATES, if you will). Here are some examples:
I wrote this blog and quit my job.
I realized what a stupid idea that was and begged Josh for my job back.
Josh was wonderful and gave me my job back.
Notice how each sentence could be separated into two sentences, like so:
I wrote this blog. I quit my job.
And so on.
Because there is no new subject for the second action, you don’t put a comma after the coordinating conjunction like you normally would.
But there’s always a catch…
If you restate the subject, then you have to have a comma (even though technically it’s still the same subject). Here’s an example of that:
I wrote this blog, and I quit my job.
Series (The Oxford Comma)
One of the most violently heated debates in English communities (and the eponymous title of a great Vampire Weekend song) is the use of the Oxford Comma.
The Oxford Comma is the last comma in a series of things. For example:
There nice commas, mean commas, and Oxford Commas
I need butter, milk, and eggs.
I need another list that is easy, fast, and uses an Oxford Comma.
Now, the gradual decline of the Oxford Comma is often traced back to publication companies saving a few cents (and page space) for everything they printed (which added up). It was considered “irrelevant”.
They are wrong.
Courtesy of jfkandstalin.wordpress.com
Without the comma, it’s hard to tell whether or not the last two items are independent of them selves (items in the list), or an appositive for the item before the last comma. Here’s an example:
Get it? Without the Oxford Comma, you can’t tell if JFK and Stalin are two more things, or just more information about the first thing (strippers).
Two more. Let’s go. I’m going to lump the last two together because they are so closely related.
Nonrestrictive Modifying Phrases/Appositives
Restrictive Modifying Phrases/Appositives
More random English words. Let’s break it down.
Modifying phrases and appositives are words (or just a single word) that provide additional information about the subject. Modifying phrases are adjectival (describing how it is), and appositives are nominal (describing what it is). Here are some examples with the modifying phrase/appositive bolded:
My mastiff, Percee, weights more than I do. (A)
My mastiff, which weights more than I do, tried to sit on me. (MP)
The book lying on the table is my favorite book. (MP)
Rowling’s book The Sorcerer’s Stoneis the first book in the series. (A)
A keen observer will have noticed that one of the appositives and modifying phrases were highlighted, and one of each was not. Here’s why:
If the appositive or modifying phrase is information that influences your interpretation of the sentence, DO NOT use commas. If the appositive or modifying phrase is extra information, DO use commas. Let’s look at the previous examples.
I only have one mastiff. Therefore, I cannot be referring to any other mastiff other than Percee (who actually does weigh more than I do). Therefore, it’s in commas.
Once again, I only have one mastiff. It needs no more explanation.
“The book” is vague. There is more than one “book” in the universe. I need to restrict my definition of “the book” to mean precisely the book that is on the table.
Again, Rowling has written way more than one book. I want to know specifically which
Basically, if you can take out the appositive/modifying phrase, and the reader would still know EXACTLY what you’re referring to, surround it in commas.
That’s it! You’re free!
See, that wasn’t so bad.
There are a few minor rules that you should know as well, like always putting commas after proper locations or in a “this, not that” style sentence. Also, always use commas when you describe something with more than one adjective (the tall, slender writer). Oh yeah, and if someone is a Jr. or Sr., put a comma after their name and before the Jr./Sr. (John Doe, Jr.). Don’t forget to also put commas at the end of quotes.
Now, you too can be a Comma Master!
–Tyler, peer tutor
5 Songs to Listen to While You Write
I find that listening to music helps me when writing papers, as it gets me energized and activates my brain, forcing me into motion. However, there is a lot of debate among researchers as to the effectiveness of listening to music while working (USA Today online). It is widely accepted by researchers that music without lyrics is more beneficial than music with lyrics, however, I enjoy listening to a balance of both. Hence, I set out to create a playlist of 5 songs that will inspire you while writing that next essay, poem, or term paper.
To prove the effectiveness of each song in fostering the process of writing, I wrote my descriptions and defense of each while listening to the very tune I was describing. I hope you take a listen and enjoy!
Picked as the first song for this beautiful introduction and immediate pick-me-up, this should awaken you from the creative hibernation that has prevented you from writing your next masterpiece. Understand that lyrics can distract from writing, so this instrumental should provide the perfect backdrop for your initial brainstorming and outpour of creativity. Both chill and energetic, Boeboe inspires your fingers to fly on the keypad, crafting eloquent phrases and ideas that will provide a solid foundation for your work. Just like your favorite pair of jeans, you can always build off this classic “Denim.” This song just inspired that intelligent quip, imagine the wonders it will do to get you writing!
Mac wastes no time in getting started, and neither will you when listening to his beautiful croon and classic guitar. The album of the same title as this song also provides a great backdrop for writing. As very easy listening, Mac keeps you in the groove and you start to vibe, both with the music and the writing. Lalalalalalalalalala ooooooo… At this point, words drift out of your consciousness onto the page effortlessly. Now, the music begins to push you to higher spheres of creation…
An old-school hip-hop song like this maintains the easy vibe of Mac Demarco, while pushing you deeper into the writing process. Doctor Beck will “take you higher than a skyscraper,” as you can’t help but produce material with the ease and precision of his flow. The classic beat and Becket’s lyricism are both relaxing and inspiring. Sooner than you know it, you’ve completed much of the writing you set out to do. The Doctor’s words don’t distract you, and his clinical flow is reflected in your work.
Keeping the hip-hop vibes going with some quintessential J Dilla is a must. Widely considered one of the greatest producers of all time, this instrumental probably influenced great works such as the Sistine Chapel and Mona Lisa in another life. It is such a shame that J Dilla passed at the young age of 32, but his music continues to inspire to this day. It isn’t hard to feel the passion and creativity of Dilla through the beat. The instrumental also provides a break from the lyrics of the last two songs, clearing the mind as you begin to refine your writing and hone your creation. Ideas and thoughts are clear in your mind, as you set out to perfect the details of your creation.
Now this whole writing deal is effortless fun. Nick Drake’s voice sounds off in your head, but to be honest, the words you have molded hold more value than what he sings of, and your mind understands this. You start to play with your writing, sprucing it up with fanciful adjectives and stylistic sentence structures. The play of the piano and guitar provide an upbeat backdrop for the finalization of your creation. The pleasure brought by a perfect product is unmatched. You sit back in awe of the incredible capacity for writing that you demonstrated, inspired by the music and voice of such diverse artists.
Castillo Y Tickell, Sofia. “Should You Listen to Music While You Study?” USA Today College. USA Today, 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 13 Sept. 2015.
Tips for Non-Native speakers
English is a language of idiosyncrasies, a Germanic language with Latin grammar rules forced upon it (thanks to its French influence in the early Medieval era.) Even native speakers themselves can only master so much of what is considered Standard English and the various contradictory rules with its use.
As a tutor in the Writing Center, I see some common errors with non-native speakers. Here are some tips for the errors I see:
Subject/verb agreement: the subject of a sentence can be singular or plural, and the verb must match accordingly (this is referred to grammatically as “number.”) For instance:
The dog [singular noun] plays [singular verb] in the yard.
The dogs [plural noun] play [plural verb] in the yard.
If your native language also has nouns and verbs reflect number, try connecting English examples to ones in your mother language. For example, Spanish:
La mujer baila. Mujer is singular, as is baila. Las mujeres bailan. Because mujeres is plural, so is the verb, bailan.
The best trick for memorizing this is repetition. Practice makes perfect: it’s a cliché for a reason.
Other verb forms: When the verb of a sentence is more than two words, I often see a lack of necessary inflection (inflection in English is a suffix which indicates various grammatical aspects of a verb, from tense [present, future, etc] to mood [indicative or subjunctive], to the as previously mentioned number [singular or plural.]) When using the passive voice, the verb of the sentence will be the conjugated form of to be + the main verb stem + the inflection of the past participle. For regular verbs, this will end in –ed. For instance:
The ball was kicked by me.
I often find non-native speakers drop the inflection and write “The ball is kick by me.”
Incorrect: The film is see by me.
Correct: The film is seen by me. (The verb ‘see’ does not follow the regular convention of –ed endings.)
Incorrect: The speech will be hear by the McDaniel community.
Correct: The speech will be heard by the McDaniel community.
Incorrect: The food from Glar was eat by unhappy students.
Correct: The food from Glar was eaten by unhappy students.
Spelling errors: Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules for English spelling. Even the ubiquitous “I before E except after C, or when sounding like A as in neighbor and weigh” has more words that don’t follow the rules than those that do. Weird.
Use a dictionary when writing a word in an essay you are unlikely to use often. With words that you use often, but find yourself consistently tripping up, practice is the key to eventual learning and memorization. Write the word correctly down over and over and over again until it sticks in your head. Say it phonetically in your mind whenever you write it, to help memorize the letters.
Being multilingual is admirable. Languages are so complex and fascinating, I always find myself wanting to learn more. There is no shame in making mistakes in a second or third (or fourth, or fifth, etc.) language – or even a mother tongue. Mistakes happen. Hopefully the Writing Center can help!
–Summer, peer tutor
Comma Get It!
Robots love commas.
Commas aren’t some piece of punctuation meant to aggravate you. They can actually be used as rhetorical tools, meaning that you can use them to emphasize information. Commas can also help you add clarity to your writing so you don’t confuse your readers.
Commas separate, introduce, and show information. While comma rules aren’t completely rigid, there are some comma guidelines that you should be familiar with. Once you get to know these, you can begin to mess with them to suit your rhetorical needs.
HOW TO USE COMMAS
There are four cases when you should really use commas:
1.To separate clauses. Commas often separate an independent clause (a phrase that can stand alone as a sentence) from a dependent clause (a phrase that can’t stand alone).
When the robot was first built,he didn’t have any legs.
2. To separate parenthetical phrases. Parenthetical phrases interrupt other phrases or clauses, and contain extra information that could be removed from the sentence without changing the sentence’s core meaning.
The robot,which had no name, was created to guard and protect the Writing Center.
3. To separate introductory phrases.An introductory phrase is a phrase at the beginning of the sentence (usually a dependent clause) that provides background information for the main sentence.
While the robot was painted silver, he had a heart of gold.
4. To balance two independent clauses (with a coordinating conjunction). Two independent clauses can be two separate sentences, or can be combined into one sentence using a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so).
Students loved the robot,for he was kind and generous.
The robot enjoyed getting to see the students,but he was always sad when the Writing Center closed for the night.
The tutors realized how lonely the robot was becoming,so they built him a robot dog to keep him company.
HOW TO NOT USE COMMAS
Even though there is a lot of flexibility in what ways you can use commas, there are also cases when you should avoid using them:
1. Don’t separate the verb from its subject or its object.
The robot, danced when no one was looking. → The robot danced when no one was looking. (The robot is the subject, danced is the verb.)
The robot walked, his robot dog. → The robot walked his robot dog. (Walked is the verb, his robot dog is the object.)
2. Don’t use a comma between an adjective and a noun.
The cardboard, robot was always eager to help students with their writing. → The cardboard robot was always eager to help students with their writing.
3. Don’t use a comma before the first item in a series.
The robot likes, gummy worms, break dancing, and paper cranes. → The robot likes gummy worms, break dancing, and paper cranes.
4.Don’t use a comma after a coordinating conjunction.
The robot was large yet, gentle. → The robot was large yet gentle. *OR* The robot was large, yet gentle.
Note: You can use a comma before the coordinating conjunction if you want, but you don’t have to, since the two clauses are not independent clauses. Whether or not you put a comma before the coordinating conjunction in cases like this will depend on how much you want to emphasize the piece after the conjunction.
≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈ ≈
We hope this rundown of good and not-so-good uses of commas is helpful for you. If you have any more punctuation questions, feel free to stop by the Writing Center or schedule an appointment here.
We also hope that you’ll stop by and check out our new giant cardboard robot—he still needs a name and we would love your input!
—Annie and Sarah, peer tutors
I hate reading work by Ernest Hemingway. I find his use of short, staccato sentences to be choppier than the water in The Old Man and the Sea, and I often find myself wondering, “Would it have killed this man to write a complex sentence?” Sure, the grammar rules would have been a little more tricky, but it would have made English class my sophomore year of high school much more bearable.
That being said, here are some tips for writing complex sentences:
1. Join less important sentences together.
This is usually done by joining different clauses together. There are two types of clauses that can serve this purpose: dependent and independent. A dependent clause, which does not include both a subject and a verb, does not need to be separated from the rest of the sentence with a comma. Contrastingly, an independent clause contains both a subject and a verb, so it has to be joined to the sentence with a comma or a semicolon.
“He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach.” (Hemingway)
The phrase “of the lions on the beach” is not a complete sentence, so it does not need to be joined to the rest of the sentence by a comma.
“He only dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach. He never dreamed about the boy.” (Hemingway)
This block of text can be joined into a complex sentence because it consists of two independent clauses.
He dreamed of places now and of the lions on the beach, yet he never dreamed about the boy.
2. Remember FANBOYS.
These coordinating conjunctions are easy tools for joining two independent clauses together. Below is an example of how complex sentences can give writing better flow.
Write drunk. Edit sober.
Authors should write drunk, but theyshould edit their work sober.
In the above sentence, the coordinating conjunction is bolded, and the subject and verb phrase of the independent clause are underlined.
**Please note that the writing tutors do not advocate doing your writing assignments while intoxicated. That is all Hemingway’s idea.**
3. Vary the structure of your sentences.
Not all sentences that consist of two independent clauses need to use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. Semicolons can also be useful.
“The fish moved steadily [as] they travelled slowly on the calm water. The other baits were still in the water but there was nothing to be done.” (Hemingway)
With a semicolon, the sentences above could look like this.
The fish moved steadily as they travelled slowly on the calm water; the other baits were still in the water, but there was nothing to be done.”
Writing that does not contain too many simple sentences is the easiest to read. Using different types of sentence structures can help a writer to achieve better flow, and make sure that a reader does not zone out while reading like I did in sophomore year English.
–Michelle, peer tutor
Hacker, Diana, and Nancy Sommers. A Writer’s Reference. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea. New York: Scribner, 1952. Print.
Verbs in the English language can be infinitely tricky, what with our multitude of irregulars and often misleading vowel combinations, but they can also be infinitely beautiful, conjugated in ways that convey shades of subtle meaning.
Just like rebellious teenagers, verbs can contain a lot of emotion and like to spend time pondering their place and purpose in the universe. The English subjunctive is a “mood” which communicates doubt, hope, wishfulness, or the hypothetical.
One of the most distinct forms of the subjunctive mood is in the difference between “was” and “were.”
This is Angela. She is in love with Jordan Catalano, but he does not know she exists. If she writes in her diary, which would be the correct way to describe her love for him?
“I wish I was dating Jordan Catalano,” vs. “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.”
Here, the correct choice would be “I wish I were dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela is not actually dating him, but merely wishes to be, were expresses the hypothetical nature of the situation – the doubt that it is a thing that actually exists.
“If I was dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy,” vs. “If I were dating Jordan Catalano, I would be happy.”
Again, Angela is not actually dating Jordan Catalano, but is expressing the wish/doubt/uncertainty inherent in the statement. Imagine it this way: if we take out the “if” from the sentence, it leaves us with “I was dating Jordan Catalano.” Because Angela had never been dating him, the implication of was on its own is incorrect, and were is necessary instead.
However, was also has a specific purpose. Examine the following:
“If Angela was in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know,” vs. “If Angela were in love with Jordan Catalano, I would know.”
Because Angela actually is in love with Jordan– because the sentence is expressing something that is hypothetically true or implied to be hypothetically true, was would be appropriate. The use of were in the second example implies to the listener that the fact of Angela being in love with Jordan is doubtful, uncertain, or unlikely to become a possibility.
Although its conscious use has fallen somewhat out of fashion, the use of were instead of was still communicates an important element of the unknown and uncertain… much like the fate of Angela’s heart.