Wrangling Commas

Commas – they’re the most commonly used (and abused) punctuation mark.

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to writers using commas:

  • There are the comma sprites who sprinkle commas willy-nilly throughout their writing. These are the folks who take their elementary school teachers’ advice to heart and put a comma everywhere they might take a breath. (If all those teachers knew how many headaches they’ve caused copy editors, they’d cut it out!)
  • There are the comma misers who need an act of Congress to put a comma in where it belongs. Their writing (especially if they like long, compound sentences) are grammatical workouts for the reader. In the end, the reader feels lucky to have gotten out of there with her sanity, never mind understanding what she just read.

Commas scare many writers. They’re like strange cats – they can be friendly. On the other hand, they could tear you apart. You can convince them to do what you want, but you can never really tame them.

There are six rules for commas. Well, they’re more like guidelines. That’s why commas are tough to pin down.

Commas are used

  • before coordinating conjunctions to join independent clauses,
  • to separate three or more items in a series (including modifiers),
  • when using an address or date in a sentence,
  • after an introductory expression,
  • before a comment or question tagged on the end of a sentence,
  • around expressions that interrupt the flow of a sentence, and
  • around nonrestrictive (“scoopable”) clauses and phrases.

Check out extended explanations of these uses in “Six Comma Rules.”

The trouble with commas is that sometimes we need to slow down the reader to make a sentence clearer, but the situation doesn’t fit into these “rules.” What do we do then? We can put in a comma, but we have to have a good reason for doing it.

For example, we could say, “It depends on what is is.” Looks funky even if we write it like this: “It depends on what ‘is’ is.” For visual purposes, a comma is justified: “It depends on what ‘is,’ is.” (Notice the comma is inside the quotation marks. We live in the United States, and this is American English form.)

Here’s another one: “Those of us who can help to build houses for the homeless.” At first glance, this looks like a sentence fragment. But if we put a comma in the right place (between the verbs “can” and “help”), it makes sense: “Those of us who can, help to build houses for the homeless.”

Sure, working with commas can be frustrating. (Have you ever tried to train a cat to do anything?) But as long as you stick close to the guidelines and mindfully, knowledgably break them when necessary, you’ll be fine.


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