content writing tips

Essential Keys to Conquering the Comma

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Ah, commas. This cute little punctuation mark is essential to writing understandable prose. Unfortunately, it is also among the most misused punctuation marks. I’ve seen countless examples of extra commas, missing commas, and commas that seem to be hanging out just because the writer wanted to put one there (or made a typo).

How can you conquer comma usage and take your writing to the next level? Here is your guide to navigating some of the most common comma conundrums. And don’t worry — I’m not a fan of high-falootin’ language, so this article should be digestible even for folks who shudder when they hear the word “grammar.”

Commas in Lists

The Oxford Comma

As I’ve touched on I previous blog posts, there are a couple acceptable ways to use commas in lists of three or more items. Both of the following are correct:

  • Jeremy loves ice cream, potato chips, and broccoli. (With the Oxford comma—a comma that separates the final two items in a list.)
  • Jeremy loves ice cream, potato chips and broccoli. (Without the Oxford comma.)

Whether you use the Oxford comma may depend largely on personal preference as well as the style in which you are writing. If you are creating content for a certain publication, they might have a preference on whether or not you should use it.

Two Items in a List

You should not use a comma if you have only two items in your list.

  • INCORRECT: Sam can sing, and play the piano.
  • CORRECT: Sam can sing and play the piano.

A good way to remember this rule is by keeping in mind that when you are reading out loud, a comma indicates a slight pause. When speaking, you wouldn’t normally say “Same can sing (pause) and play the piano.” It sounds much more natural to say the sentence all at once.

Lists with a Lot of Words

If some of the items in your list are rather lengthy, or they have commas in themselves, you should usually not use commas to separate them. If you do use commas, you could end up confusing your readers. Here’s an example of how you could commit this comma infraction:

  • If you love pizza with pepperoni, olives, and sausage, you enjoy dancing and socializing, and you don’t mind furry dogs, you should come to my party!

This sentence is rather long, and the first item in the list contains a list within a list — it could easily trip up readers. An easy way to avoid this problem is by using semicolons to separate the items in the primary list:

  • If you love pizza with pepperoni, olives, and sausage; you enjoy dancing and socializing; and you don’t mind furry dogs, you should come to my party!

Of course, you could also avoid confusion by separating the ideas in the sentence into separate sentences.

Commas in Compound Sentences

A compound sentence has multiple independent clauses. That is to say, the parts of the sentence could each be their own sentences if they wanted to be (or the writer wanted them to be).

  • We could take the north highway to avoid traffic, or we could hang out at the library until rush hour ends.

In compound sentences, a comma mustcome right before the coordinating conjunction that holds the two independent clauses together. (The most common coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.) However, there is an exception to the rule. If both of the independent clauses are fairly short, you do not always need a comma along with the coordinating conjunction.

  • I’ll walk and you’ll drive. (No comma necessary)

It is important to note that a comma cannot hold two independent clauses together on its own. It isn’t powerful enough.

  • INCORRECT: We value our customers, we want them to be satisfied.
  • CORRECT: We value our customers, and we want them to be satisfied. (Comma with coordinating conjunction)
  • CORRECT: WE value our customers; we want them to be satisfied. (Semicolon with no comma or coordinating conjunction)

Commas in Complex Sentences

A complex sentence has one independent clause and one dependent clause. A dependent clause would make no sense if it did not have the independent clause to give it meaning. Here’s an example of a complex sentence:

  • Because I was tired, I took a nap.

On its own and without any context to support it, “Because I was tired” leaves the reader hanging. There has to be more to it. “I took a nap,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense without any additional words.

If a dependent clause comes first in a complex sentence, it should have a comma immediately after it separate it from the independent clause. However, if the independent clause comes first, you don’t need a comma. Here’s an example:

  • I took a nap because I was tired.

Commas to Add Information

Commas provide an excellent way for you to add supplementary information to a sentence. You simply offset the additional information with a comma on each side of it:

  • The bathroom, I was relieved to find, was exceptionally clean for being in a gas station.

“I was relieved to find” is not essential for the sentence, but it provides insight into the narrator’s point of view.

You can also use commas to define items in a sentence or call the same object or person by a different name or title. This is called an appositive. Here are a few examples.

  • My grandmother, the best bridge player in North County, shuffled the cards like a queen.
  • The CEO, Mr. Roberts, glared at me as if I had just insulted his mother’s honor.

You can also use em dashes to set off extra information or definitions within a sentence. Generally, however, commas are the punctuation mark of choice.

Commas with a Question Tag

A question tag is a few words, or perhaps just one word, that you add to the end of a sentence to turn it into a question. A comma goes right before a question tag.

  • That movie was awesome, right?
  • You’re going to finish washing the dishes, aren’t you?

Commas for Direct Address

When a sentence or piece of dialogue involves addressing someone directly by their name or title, use a comma to set off that name or title.

  • Mom, what’s for dinner?
  • Andrew, can I borrow your pen?
  • Honey, I think we need to work on our comma skills.
  • I think we’ve already covered that information, Martin.

Commas in Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are the words at the beginning or the end of a quote that indicate who is speaking. In fiction, a dialogue tag often also includes words that describe the speaker’s tone of voice or demeanor.

If a dialogue tag comes before a quote, put a comma at the end of the dialogue tag but before your first set of quotation marks.

  • He stated, “We’re going to need more lemon juice.”

If a dialogue tag comes after a quote, the comma should go inside the quotation marks and before the dialogue tag.

  • “We’re going to need more lemon juice,” he stated.

The exception to this is when the quotation ends with an exclamation point or question mark. In such cases, you can omit the comma entirely.

  • “We’re going to need more lemon juice!” he yelled.
  • “Will we need more lemon juice?” he asked.

Commas can be complicated! Fortunately, learning to use them correctly isn’t difficult. In most cases, it’s pretty intuitive. In other cases, however, you might need to pause and think about which rules apply. You don’t want to throw your readers off and damage your own credibility by consistently comma misuse! Do you have any tips or tricks that you use to enhance your comma game? Let me know in the comments!

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