Weekly Grammar Tip: Commas

You may have guessed that, based on the name of this blog, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ with commas. In fact, it’s become quite common for my co-workers to roll their eyes when I start talking about commas, or to simply warn each other about my comma-obsession.

Commas are, in my humble opinion, abused to all hell. They are whacked into the middle of sentences with barely a thought; they slip through the cracks and get usurped by bumpy fullstops; they are just plain ignored and left hanging against the wall feeling like a bit of an unwanted loser.

I know of people who are terrified of commas and never really know when to use them. I know people who love them so much that they use them too often and end up exhausting the common comma (and the hyperventilating reader).

It is really important not to stick them where they don’t belong (that’s what she said!) as they can really detract from the meaning of your sentence. Incorrect examples:

  • I have chocolate, available for sale, and, some olive bread.
  • The cat is sitting on my lap, and purring.
  • There is no where, for the comma to hide, except, here.

*shudders*

The above sentences should really read:

  • I have chocolate available for sale, and some olive bread.
  • The cat is sitting on my lap and purring.
  • There is no where for the comma to hide, except here.

The comma before ‘and’ is not necessary, though it does change the phrasing of the sentence – I sometimes call these “optional” commas as their usage may depend on how you want the sentence to “sound”. This should make sense as you start to understand the multiple uses of commas. Above all, it’s important not to just shove them in and hope for the best.

Rule #1

Commas can be used to separate words in a list, for example:

  • I need someone to make me a cup of tea, toast with honey and a chocolate muffin.

Sometimes a comma is added before the word ‘and’, for example:

  • I need someone to make me a cup of tea, toast with honey, and a chocolate muffin.

This is correct however it is uncommon and usually used following a list, for example:

  • I need someone to make me a cup of tea, toast with honey and a chocolate muffin, and bring them to me.

Rule #2

Commas are also used to combine two independent (or ‘whole’) sentences along with a conjunction such as and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet. For example:

  • I really need a coffee, and I need to go to bed.
  • I can make lots of things, but making sensing out of commas is hard!

Those sentences would be incorrect if they lacked the conjunction:

  • I really need a coffee, I need to go to bed.
  • I can make lots of things, making sensing out of commas is hard!

What they should have is a … semicolon!

Rule #3

If you start a sentence with a conjunction such as because, since, while then you should use a comma in the sentence, for example:

  • Since I left Italy, I can’t remember some basic conversation vocabulary.
  • Because he is so clever, he has learnt to use commas properly.

Rule #4

Commas can also be used to provide additional information to the sentence without using parentheses, for example:

  • I can make a chocolate cake, with icing, in under an hour.
  • Stef, as crazy as she is, is pretty damn determined in her quest to rescue abused commas.

Are you OK? Do you need to take a break?

Even "I can has cheezburger" understands commas. Well, the cat does, at least.

Rule #5

A pause: that’s exactly what commas do – they create a pause. That’s the last point of this little grammar spiel: commas are a pause, a little breath before the next part. If you remember nothing from this grammar tip, remember that a comma is a breathe, time for pause, a little break within the sentence.

If you read something and come across a comma, take a tiny pause before continuing. It’s different to the break you take when you approach a fullstop, and it will change the meaning of your sentence if you use it correctly. After all, commas save lives:

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19 comments on “Weekly Grammar Tip: Commas

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  6. Good luck with your campaign. My wife has a similar quest to rid the world of inappropriate apostrophe use. Not enough people are taking up this fight to protect our written language and it certainly is a worthy cause. ;o)

    • Damn straight! More grammar nerds need to join forces, I think.

      I had a woman come it to tell me about somethingsomethingcorporateaccommodation? last week and the meeting ended with her having an “ah-ha” moment over apostrophes once I sat down and demonstrated the difference between apostrophes of possession and contractions.

      What is the world coming to …

  7. Haha! I’ve seen that “grammar saves lives” picture before, gets me every time! (:

    I am a wee bit of a comma-whore, so it’s nice to have the occasional reminder to keep me from over-using them. Ta!

    • Commas, like wine, should be used in moderation. When used excessively you might have fun, but it just causes a headache the next day. 😉

      Glad you enjoyed the reminder! I’m determined to rescue commas one sentence at a time … wine helps fuel the determined rants and red-pen-scribblings, believe me!

  8. I think that whenever I have a common comma issue, I’m coming to you. I love reading memos at work where people don’t use commas properly. I usually have to resist every urge to throw a chair through their window or tackle them over the desk. So instead I just poison their coffee or poo in their carryout leftovers! (Okay, that’s completely untrue.)

    In all seriousness, everybody needs a reminder now and then, even people who think they know everything there is to know about language! I favorited this little post as reference during my next editing marathon!

    • I’m so pleased you enjoy it! I’ve been driving people nuts with my comma-passion, and I can understand the need for drastic action! Death by grammar …

  9. Oh goody! Just what I need. I am a terrible comma splicer, something I’ve been unable to cure in ten years of professional copywriting. Thank goodness for editors.

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I’ll be back here!

  10. I have a question for you oh wise comma goddess. I had this issue in my editing course the other week regarding commas and multiple adjectives. It has to do with the difference between evaluative, descriptive and definitive adjectives, but it makes my head spin! What does that all MEAN?! Please help this poor illiterate brain!

    P.S. LOL at “comma cat suggests a pause” and “that’s what she said”.

    • Here goes …

      Commas and adjectives aren’t just a matter of chucking in a comma after every adjective because there are different types of adjectives. As a general rule (that makes it easy to remember), you only put commas between the same type of adjective.

      If I want to describe something with multiple descriptive adjectives, then I separate these descriptors with a comma, for example: The small, furry cat. Both ‘small’ and ‘furry’ are describing the cat. By the way, Sweet Pea is helping – I think she’s saying ‘hi’ – by chasing my fingers as I type this.

      However, I could write: The small Burmese cat. “Small” is a descriptive adjective and “Burmese” is a definitive adjective, so they don’t need a comma between them. A definitive adjective is something that “defines” the noun and is usually a permanent adjective, in this case, the cat’s breed.

      I could also write: The annoying small Burmese cat. “Annoying” is an evaluative adjective, implying a judgement has been made – in this case, that the cat is annoying (Sweet Pea is now unimpressed with these examples and is now grooming herself in my lap).

      Here’s a sentence blending all three adjectives and commas:
      Sweet Pea is an annoying small, furry Burmese cat who likes to use her short, sharp cat claws to chase my slow-moving fat fingers and leave long red scratches on my pale white human hands.

      I hope that helps (and that I got it right)! A really detailed explanation of the different adjectives can be found here, along with more explanation on comma-usage: http://egoboo-wa.blogspot.com/2010/08/adjectives-commas-and-confusion.html and more on adjectives: http://ascensionediting.wordpress.com/2010/08/25/adjectives/

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