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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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: