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6 Basic Comma Rules

– Posted in: Writing Tips

Why Talk About Comma?

I have two good reasons:

First, I recently had a group critique the first chapter of my novel, and some of them gave advice on comma usage. The only problem was some gave wrong advice. Second, my daughter has been asking me to write about commas because she gets confused about when to and when not to use them.

Comma’s Are Easy

Comma’s are pretty straight forward. For those who are wondering, yes, there are more than six rules, but if you know the basic six rules, you’ll have almost everything you need to know about commas. If you have a question that falls outside these rules, try one of these sites for answers: Purdue University or Antioch University.

Common Myths

Myth #1: Use commas when you would pause in speech. This is an unreliable guideline because people pause or breathe in different places.

Myth #2: Long sentences need commas. Length of a sentence doesn’t determine if a sentence needs a comma. Some long sentence don’t need commas.

Myth #3: Rules for commas are vague, and they are impossible to figure out. Although there are a couple of flexible rules, most of the time commas belong in specific places.

Here Are the Six Basic Rules

1. When two sentences are joined by a coordinating conjunction, use a comma before the conjunction.

**Coordinating conjunctions are: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

**A sentence has a subject and a verb.

**So, if there is a sentence on either side of the conjunction, use a comma. If not, don’t use a comma.

Examples:

May jumped over the pasture fence, and she landed in the mud.

Jack went the the store to buy eggs, but he forgot his wallet and had to return home. (Notice that the “and” does not connect two sentences; the sentence following “but” has one subject and two verbs)

Most people believe that history repeats itself, yet my history professor says most people ignore history’s lessons.

Don’t use a comma if there isn’t a subject/verb on either side of the conjunction.

May jumped over the pasture fence and landed in the mud.

Jack and Jill sneaked out of the house and went to the Spider Man premiere.

Roger ate the entire pie and got sick.

2. If a phrase or group of words comes before the main sentence, place a comma after those words.

**Here are some introductory words: when, instead, therefore, finally, however, otherwise, also, because.

**This is one of those flexible rules. You can get away without putting a comma after a one or two word phrase; however, I would caution against this because without the comma, you can lose clarity of meaning.

Examples:

Before going home, the murderer washed his hands and threw away his blood stained clothes.

After Jeff broke up with her, she found her soul mate.

Well, you can’t pretend it didn’t happen.

Afraid she didn’t have enough gas, Martha rode her bicycle to the meeting.

3. Use commas around clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Place a comma before the beginning of the phrase and one at the end.

My doctor, who is also an amateur comedian, told me to stay off my feet.

My math class, which turned out to be fun, is over in three weeks.

“Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named, used the largest telescope of his day in the 1920s at the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California, to discover galaxies beyond our own”

If in doubt, use these questions to test the clause, phrase, or words.

Does the sentence make sense without the words? If yes, use commas.

If you move the words to a different place in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense? If no, use commas.

4. Do not use commas to set off phrases and words that are essential to the sentence.

Examples

The boy in the yellow shirt is my son.

The firefighter who rescued us had a heart attack.

Note: Clauses beginning with “that” do not require commas.

Clauses after nouns that begin with “that” are always essential; also “that” clauses following verbs that express mental action (believe, wish, imagine, etc) are always essential. Sometimes “that” is left out of a sentence and still makes sense. If “that” can be inserted before a clause and the clause retains its meaning, it’s a “that” clause.

Examples:

The shoe wax that my brother uses is excellent. The shoe wax my brother uses is excellent.

He thinks that crossing his fingers brings good luck. He thinks crossing his fingers brings good luck.

She hopes that it doesn’t rain on her wedding day. She hopes it doesn’t rain on her wedding day.

5. For dialogue: Use a comma after a phrase introducing a quotation. Use a comma after a quotation that is followed by a dialogue tag.

Examples:

Fred turn to Martha and asked, “Has you son arrived?”

Losing his grip on the ledge, Harry shouted, “Look out below.”

“What time does the train arrive?” Sarah asked.

“I have no idea,” Jake said.

6. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

The mail carrier brought a package, four letters, and a ton of junk mail.

Get toilet paper, milk, peanut butter, and toothpaste from the Quick Mart.

**You may have heard of an Oxford or Harvard comma or serial comma, which states in a list if three or more, always place a comma before the final conjunction in a list. I follow this rule because it avoids confusion and creates clarity. However, this is a flexible rule. Some people do not place a comma before the “and” in a list. My problem with leaving out the final comma is many sentences become ambiguous without it.

The classic example is: I love jokes about my parents, God and Satan. The writer doesn’t really means that God and Satan are his parents. Using the Oxford comma clears this up: I love jokes about my parents, God, and Satan.

**So, I recommend following the Oxford comma rule.

**It’s called the Oxford or Harvard comma because printers, readers, and editors at these University Presses used this comma rule.

**Some people disagree and omit the final comma in a series.

**Here are funny examples from Steven Pinker’s book, The Sense of Style:

“Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

“. . . highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” (The Times of London.)

Here’s the short version of the 6 Basic Rules:

6 Basic Comma Rules

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Bonus Rules for those who want more:

Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

Examples

I live in Los Angeles, California.

The president of the United States, lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC.

Who lives at 221B Baker Street, London?

In 2007, Mayim Bialik, Ph.D., earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

A Ubiquitous Mistake

There is one comma mistake that I see frequently: putting a comma before because when it’s use in the middle of a sentence. The mistake is made so often people think the comma is correct.

The rule is do not use a comma before because unless you need a comma to prevent confusion because the sentence could have two meanings. The need for a comma usually happens when the verb is negative.

The usual usage without a comma:

***Mr. Roberts takes a drink before giving a speech because he gets nervous.

***George is allergic to shell fish and got sick because he ate lobster.

Grammar Girl has a good example of the need for a comma to prevent confusion:

“She didn’t want to cook because it was her birthday. (Does she want to cook for some other reason or does she want to have a break from cooking on her birthday?)”

Unless you want to create ambiguity, ambiguous sentences are usually better if they are rewritten for clarity: She didn’t want to cook because it was her birthday, and she deserved a break on her special day.

If your sentence is ambiguous without a comma, add the comma or reword for clarity.

The Usual Reminders

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