Those Darn Commas!

Perhaps one of my biggest personal pet peeves throughout my studies is related to the proper use of the comma. When do you need one? Where? The common idea I’ve been taught is that a comma will go where a natural pause occurs when the sentence is read aloud. Easy enough, right? Not so much. Over the course of my readings, I’ve seen plenty of stories that lack commas in obvious places where a pause felt natural. Often times, it seems like the placement of the comma is determined more by the author and/or their editor.

As mentioned in a previous blog post, a sentence made up of a dependent clause followed by an independent phrase will have a comma separating the two components.

As a quick recap, let’s look back at the basics of the independent phrase (IN) and dependent clause (DC).

For example:

When I leave home, my dog sits by the door.”

This sentence can be changed around so that the IN comes first followed by the DC like so:

My dog sits by the door when I leave home.” No comma needed.

If I want to change the first sentence to include an additional clause (DC, IN, DC), it would look something like this:

When I leave home, my dog sits by the door and waits for me to return.”

Looking back at the first example, the sentence could also be written as either of the following (IN, DC, DC or DC, DC, IN):

My dog sits by the door and waits for me to return home.”

Waiting for me to return home, my dog sits by the door.”

If we look back at the independent/independent sentence structure, you might wonder why two independent thoughts can’t be separated by ONLY a comma.

For example, you wouldn’t write the following sentence this way:

My dog sits by the door, he waits for me to return home.”

While it’s clear to the reader what the sentence means, the comma alone is considered a no-no and referred to as a comma splice.

Moving on, if a coordinating conjunction is used to separate two independent clauses, then a comma will also be used.

To remember what a coordinating conjunction, think of the acronym FANBOYS:
For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

Some examples:

I am an introvert, and don’t like meeting new people.”

This sentence can also be changed around using multiple configurations. Given that it contains two independent clauses or two complete sentences, it can be written as:

I am an introvert. I don’t like meeting new people.”

This same sentence can also be written in the following ways:

“I am an introvert; whereas, I don’t like meeting new people.”

“I am an introvert and don’t like meeting new people.”

Notice the different punctuation and/or added words in each sentence.

You can also change the dynamics of the sentence for a better flow by using the IN, DC format instead of IN, IN format shown in the last example.

Most sentences can be written in a variety of ways and will still provide the same meaning, as you can see from the above examples.

Other comma uses

Where else can commas be used? They can be used when making lists.

List example:

“I have to go to the store, to the bank, and to the school.”

While the first comma is required, the second comma (the one before and) is used at the discretion of the author. This means if the writer wants to use the second comma, then it’s up to that person. I, personally, like using the second and subsequent commas when listing items. This is also known as the Oxford comma.

 

Commas are used to separate a dependent phrase from an independent clause. It is also used to separate appositives (AP) which are words that can be added to create a noun or noun phrase. An appositive renames the noun within the passage. It can consist of a single word or multiple words.

AP example:

The bird in the tree, a bluejay, has been chirping nonstop all day.”

If I took out the AP, the sentence structure would change to an IN. As it’s written right now, it’s DC, AP, DC. Keep in mind, the number one way to remember whether a sentence needs a comma or not is to look at its structure. Is it independent/dependent? Independent/independent? Or Dependent/independent? That’s the easiest way I’ve found.

 

Commas are also used after introductory phrases (IP).

IP example 1:

After he came home, we sat down to eat dinner.”

This introductory phrase is actually an introductory adverb phrase because it’s using an adverb to modify the verb in the main part of the sentence.

IP example 2:

When it was time to leave, we all gathered in the car.”

 

Commas are used to separate the dialogue from the rest of the narrative or story.

Dialogue example:

I‘m just going to go now,” Brian sadly said as he walked to the door.

 

Commas are used before and/or after a name if that person, for example, is being referred to.

One point of clarification when using a character’s name in dialogue, if the sentence doesn’t make sense when the name is taken out, then it is required information and will not be separated by commas.

Name example:

“Little Mattie wanted to go to school with his brother.”

This sentence wouldn’t make sense with the name removed, so there is no need for any commas.

“Frank and his girlfriend, Alice, went to the dance together.”

“Frank and his girlfriend went to the dance together.”

“Barbara, can you help me with this?”

“Can you help me with this?”

That last example works best when it’s two characters talking to each other. Otherwise, if more characters are involved, it might get confusing as to who is talking.

Here is a page that provides further examples of introductory phrases: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas_intro.htm

Commas are also used to separate connecting adjectives (AD), but only if they can be interchanged.

AD examples:

“There was a tall, scary creature in the woods.”

The creature was tall. The creature was scary. Both adjectives modify the noun.

“The girl had long, curly hair.”

The girl had long hair. The girl had curly hair. Both adjectives modify the noun.

In both of the above examples, the adjectives can be swapped without affecting the meaning of the sentence.

“The unmarked police car.”

In this sentence, both unmarked and police modify “car”.

Can we swap these adjectives?

“The police unmarked car.”

Huh…What’s wrong with this example? That’s right! The adjectives are NOT interchangeable. Even though both adjectives modify the noun, the sentence doesn’t really make sense and reads awkwardly. Therefore, no comma would be used to separate these connecting adjectives because they are not interchangeable.

Another example: 

“I saw the big bad wolf.”

While this sentence sounds perfectly fine, try changing the adjectives around.

“I saw the bad big wolf.”

Yeah, that doesn’t sound right.

 

Commas are also used to offset negatives (the contradiction or denial of something) in a sentence. Basically, it’s a word that means ‘no’.

Negative example:

“You’re going to take care of this, not me.”

“Not” is the negative or no-no word in this sentence.

 

This last example uses a comma near the end of a sentence. These commas are found when the speaker/writer asks a question.

For example:

“This is the best way to do it, right?”

The examples I’ve provided are those that I come across often whether reading or editing. Commas have a variety of uses and more examples can be found on the following page: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-use-commas-2017-3

I hope you have found this blog useful. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, jokes, funnies, please feel free to contact me. Thanks for reading!

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