Comma Usage 101: Time to quit abusing this helpful bit of grammatical beauty

By Emily Rae Robles

Sentences are wonderful things.  They are both left-brained and right-brained, serving both to organize thoughts and to add to the musicality of writing.  However, the entire beauty of a well-formed sentence can be disrupted by one terrible, terrible thing: an ill-placed comma.

The poor comma is probably the most misused aspect of grammar out there.  Too often, writers with good intentions end up sticking a comma wherever they take a breath—a technique that suffices only occasionally.  To remedy this sad state of affairs, I am providing a comma tutorial.  After reading this series of posts, you should be able to correctly place commas in a variety of situations.  Let’s begin

Learning Sentence Structure

One of the first steps in determining comma placement is recognizing whether the clause that is to be punctuated is independent or dependent.  But what is a clause? What does it mean if one is independent? Or dependent? Here are some definitions to assist you on the path to completing comma camaraderie:

A clause is a part of a sentence that contains both a subject and a verb.

Independent clauses express a complete thought and are connected to the main clause of the sentence by a coordinating conjunction.  They require a comma before (not after!) the conjunction.

Coordinating conjunctions: and, but, or, so, yet, nor

These six words are the mediators of the grammar world, linking one complete thought to another.  If you see one of these little guys separating two clauses bust out those commas! (But first, make sure that the clause in question has both a subject and a verb.)

Correct: Marie presented her ideas to the group, and Evan frantically took notes.

And Evan frantically took notes wouldn’t technically be considered a complete sentence since it begins with and, but the thought itself is complete.  No extra information is necessary.  We know Evan frantically took notes, and we can be satisfied with that thought.

Dependent clauses contain both a subject and a verb but require an independent clause to make their thoughts complete.  Dependent clauses are introduced by a subordinate conjunction or relative pronoun and do not require a comma if they come after the main clause.  If a sentence begins with a dependent clause, a comma is required after it.

Some subordinating conjunctions:  after, although, as, because, before, if, once, since, than, that, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, whether, while, why

Relative pronouns: that, which, whichever, who, whoever, whom, whoever, whose, whosoever

There are a whole lot more of these than there are coordinating conjunctions, and that’s not even all of the subordinating conjunctions out there! The easy way to figure out whether a comma is necessary is to use one when the clause makes sense standing on its own and not to use one when the clause needs another clause to make sense.

Correct: Marie presented her ideas to the group while Evan frantically took notes.

While Evan frantically took notes cannot stand on its own because of the subordinating conjunction. What happened while Evan frantically took notes? You can’t just leave us in suspense like this; finish the sentence! Since the thought is not complete, do not use a comma in this case.

Correct:  While Evan frantically took notes, Marie presented her ideas to the group.

In this case, the dependent clause serves as an introductory phrase.  In order to set off the phrase and make it clear who is doing what, a comma is necessary here.

Nota Bene: When looking for coordinate conjunctions as your clue to whether or not you need a comma, make sure it is two independent clauses with both a subject and a verb that are involved.  DO NOT use a comma in the following situations:

NO COMMA between a subject and a verb

Incorrect:  Amber’s favorite bed and breakfast, was a cozy little place.

NO COMMA between two verbs in a compound predicate

Incorrect:  Richard talked to his mother on the phone, and then went out for dinner.

NO COMMA between two subjects in a compound subject

Incorrect:  Alyssa’s late-night hours, and her husband’s early mornings did not mesh well together.

NO COMMA between two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction (this is called a comma splice)

Incorrect:  Marlene wanted pizza for dinner, Alfonso preferred steak.

NO COMMA after an introductory phrase when it is the main phrase

Incorrect:  My mind is going crazy, thinking of all these incorrect sentences.

And especially don’t make all these mistakes at once

Incorrect:  The lion’s teeth, and its claws, were the most terrifying part of its physique, and scared me half to death, I thought it was going to devour me alive.

That’s it for part one of Comma Usage 101.  But wait! If you’re especially motivated, you can gain extra credit!  Find the comma mistake in this post, and you’ll win a bunch of happy thoughts from me.  There’d better be only one, or I’ll be really embarrassed.  So if you find more than one, you get a zillion extra credit points but no good feelings from me.  Feel special.
emilyraeEmily Rae Robles is something of a literary prodigy, and we’re so glad to have found her!  Growing up her dream was to become a professional reader, not the more commonplace ballerina or veterinarian. Her parents often punished her by taking away her reading privileges back then. She credits CS Lewis and Chaim Potok for changing her view on literature and life. She can be reached via email or Twitter. You can also learn more about her by visiting her blog, The Paradoxymoron:

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