WRITING AND THE COMMA

Hi SEers! Denise here to talk about one of the grammatical things that give me trouble, commas!

Definition of comma
noun
the sign (,), a mark of punctuation used for indicating a division in a sentence, as in setting off a word, phrase, or clause, especially when such a division is accompanied by a slight pause or is to be noted in order to give order to the sequential elements of the sentence. It is also used to separate items in a list, to mark off thousands in numerals, to separate types or levels of information in bibliographic and other data, and, in Europe, as a decimal point…
—Dictionary.com

The comma has many uses, which added to my confusion. A teacher once told my English class, way back in the 1970s, to put the comma in the sentence where you naturally pause when speaking. That never worked for me. I must not pause in the right places. I have had to depend on Grammarly and ProWritingAid to catch my errors, but I’ve seen the programs battle over the same comma.

So I’ve set out to do some makeup learning to conquer comma rules as an adult.



Here are seven common rules for using commas:

1. Add commas to separate a list of three or more items. Example: I need to write, sleep, and eat.
2. A comma joins independent clauses using these coordinating conjunctions known as FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. Example: I am comma-challenged, so I have to look up the rules.
3. A comma goes around nonessential information in a sentence. Example: My husband, who owns a black Harley, loves to do yardwork.
4. Put a comma after an introductory clause in a sentence before the main clause or subject. Example: Because I love challenges, I write poetry on the back of a Harley.
5. A comma goes at the end of a sentence to separate elements, like a shift or pause. Example: It was a beautiful spring day to write poetry outside, no breeze.
6. Place a comma between two or more coordinate adjectives describing the same noun. Example: What a blissful, happy moment.
7. Commas are generally used with quotes. Example: “I ate all my chocolate,” Denise said.

This is not a complete set of rules for comma usage, but a good start.



Years ago, I bought a book on comma usage and it is still sitting on my shelf after one attempt to read it. Now I prefer to go online and research it, but there are plenty of books and articles out there when help is needed. The Chicago Manual of Style is the standard for American writing, and I have an older version on my shelf. Here is another book with a lot of helpful information written by fellow Story Empire author Harmony Kent, Polish Your Prose. 

A good editor will catch your mistakes, but they aren’t always there to help. Learning where to place that illusive comma is something I’m determined to do.

happy face

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”― Oscar Wilde
“Life is a series of commas, not periods.” —Matthew McConaughey
“I have been fighting over commas all my life.”—Mark Helprin

How about you? Do you have a grammar issue that challenges you? How did you conquer it, or not?
 
 

92 thoughts on “WRITING AND THE COMMA

  1. Hi Denise, I insert commas they way your teacher suggested and I am teaching Michael to do it that way too. By ear, it’s called. There are, of course, rules as you have included here and they have changed since I was at school so I always have to check. Thanks for this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I believe most of us struggle with the comma. So many rules. Like you, I was taught that a comma goes where you pause. I am lucky to have great critique partners that help with the comma. I am a big fan of the Oxford comma.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The comma is sure tricky! I am also lucky to have critique partners who have more skills in this area. The Oxford comma is sure popular 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: WW – The Comma – The Fantasy Corner

  4. When explaining this same dilemma, maybe challenge is a better word, to a person who claims editorial experience, she commented that my use of the comma in my writing looked very appropriate. Hence, I just continued the same practice of putting it where I felt it belonged. Damn the rules, full throttle ahead, after all, it’s my ‘voice’…🥸

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That is a benefit of teaching to learn how to do it. I tend to avoid semicolons, although my editor will add them in. That’s what I thought about that rule, we all speak differently, so how could that work. Thanks, Pete!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One advantage of teaching is that you’re committed to learning the use of commas. Most people use commas correctly, but some punctuation marks are regularly misused. The semicolon comes to mind. Your teacher was taking the lazy way out because not everyone will pause in the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I fought commas to the point that software and proofreaders were arguing among themselves. I will gladly add your rules to my list, Denise. I’ll report back if I make sufficient progress. Thanks for trying to help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It doesn’t help when the proof readers can’t decide where a comma goes. I hope these rules help. I’m applying them too. Thanks, Dan 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • My solution was to fall back on the “put it where you want the reader to pause” whenever, ProWritingAid, Microsoft and a few humans couldn’t agree. I figure I can’t be totally right or wrong.

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  8. Commas are the bane of my writing existence, Denise. You’d think after all this time I’d have the formulas down pat. Some I know well, but many still trip me up. I keep working to improve. Thankfully I have great critique partners and editors.
    I love your list and plan to save it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • All we can do is work to improve, and these little guys sure make it challenging. Yes, very thankful for the critique partners and editors! Thanks, Mae 🙂

      Like

  9. I have these down, mostly, Denise. And it drives me nuts when Prowritingaid and Grammarly disagree. Honestly? What makes it especially hard is that, in some situations, comma use is nuanced, like when they’re needed to provide clarification in a situation where they typically wouldn’t apply! Yeesh. Great list. If writers get your rules down, they’re way ahead of the game. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a great post, Denise. NO, I have not conquered the ambiguous commas, so thank God for good editors! One mistake I seem to keep making is with the word ‘but.’ My editor always takes out my comma when ‘but’ is used in the body of the sentence, but leaves it when the sentence starts with it. I just shrug and keep on going. Thanks for sharing! Loved the quotes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jan 🙂 I have a lot of empathy for my patient editor. I’ve ran into the same thing with the word but. The quotes made me smile about a confusing little comma.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi, Denise! I use ProWritingAid, and even that program gets confused. I’ve taken out a comma following their rules, and then had to put it back in again, following their rules. If they can’t get it right, how do we? I rely on my critique partners to catch the commas, or lack of them. 😉

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    • Hi Patty 🙂 It makes me laugh when ProWritingAid or Grammarly does this. You are right if the program is confused about what are we to think? Yes, it really helps have those extra eyes of our critiques partners, I completely agree!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. I had a great grammar teacher in middle school, but that was decades ago. Thanks for such a nice, tidy explanation of when and how to use commas. I agree with Staci, though. I still think they’re tricky:)

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great post, Denise. I was taught the Oxford system, but I’m frequently befuddled. I totally relate to Oscar Wilde’s quote. LOL! Who could have imagined the power of a simple comma! Thank you for this enlightening post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like it was advice offered by other teachers too. I had concluded as a kid that I didn’t speak properly. I probably don’t but glad to finally absorb those rules. I’m always glad for an editor to recheck my take on grammar.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Great post, Denise! Those seven rules are genuinely helpful.
    I used to rail against the Oxford comma because we were taught the last item in a list didn’t need one. Once I started writing, I appreciated the difference a comma can make to both the meaning of a sentence and the way it’s read. Loved Liz’s ‘paranoia comma’. I had classes that bunged in apostrophes whenever a word ended in an ‘s’… xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alex 🙂 I didn’t even know there was a controversy about the Oxford comma until recently. That is one thing I learned to do and carried over into writing. The comna really does change the meaning if used wrong. I love Liz’s paranoia comma too. Its a great term. Apostrophes are a whole other issue for me. Xo

      Liked by 1 person

  15. As a Language Arts teacher, I understand the comma challenges people face. The one that annoys me the most is when people but a comma AFTER a coordinating conjunction. I’ve tried to explain that the comma goes BEFORE the conjunction in lieu of a period to those people, but they continue to write how they write. Oh, well! I was lucky enough to have a Language Arts teacher that focused a lot on grammar and creating fish sentences, so I learned my parts of speech and punctuation in middle school. It has stuck with me ever since. Great post, Denise! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your students, and critique partners, are very lucky you had a good teacher who helped you understand grammar rules so well! I can only imagine the challenge it is to teach.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I got the “commas go where pauses go” instruction in elementary school. What rubbish! I had a lot of bad habits to correct after that. (Oddly enough, I was taught the Oxford comma by those same teachers, which is good advice. I’m still on the side of the Oxford comma today.)

    Comma rules can get ridiculously complicated. The one that I always have to stop and analyze when I’m editing is with appositives. (People almost always get that one wrong.) It again goes back to whether information is essential or not, but sometimes its purpose is not clear via the context. Why did the rule makers decide to make the rules so difficult?

    Great post, Denise.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Staci 🙂 The Oxford comma stuck with me too. For me, there is a neatness about it.
      It is hard to have to analyze the commas usage. I always liked the rules of math that followed a more logical set rules. I will keep absorbing the grammar rules and the exceptions that go along with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Your post reminds me of my teaching days and a phenomenon I called “Comma Paranoia,” whereby an essay would be peppered with commas where they didn’t belong. When I asked why the commas were there, the answer was, “My other teachers said I don’t have enough commas. So when I’m done with the paper, I go back and put some in.” facepalm

    Liked by 5 people

  18. The comma and semicolon are the two trickiest punctuation marks, in my opinion. I usually have to look them up to be certain I’m right.
    I find, though, when I’m critiquing, some writers use one where I think a full stop should go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • They are very tricky, and looking up useage is a good way to figure it out. It is good to be able to share these ideas, especially with critique partners.

      Like

  19. Commas – Thanks for all this – logical, very helpful
    My high school delivered the Oxford rule, my husband’s grammar did not. He’s sure I use too many. ( is a coder )
    Trying to edit, removing and restoring commas is a serious business.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Esther 🙂 It is a very serious business to get commas right, and I’m thankful for editors who are skilled at this.

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  20. I’m pretty sure I got the same advice about commas where there is a pause. I still struggle with them at time, but I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. I’m a stickler for the Oxford comma. I can’t imagine anyone not finding it necessary. Not using it can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It must have been someone’s idea to simplify using a comma. It didn’t. Not using a comma at all really can change the intent of the sentence, I agree Joan.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Great post with excellent points and examples.
    I’m big on commas and follow the Oxford (or Serial) system.
    I, too, was taught to “stick it in the pause” by a school teacher. Shocking and inaccurate. I had so much to unlearn and then learn fresh.
    Thanks so much for the wonderful shoutout for Polish Your Prose. Yep, that tiny punctuation mark can cause such mischief!

    This is an easy-to-understand piece that gets the essentials across. Great post, Denise 💕🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Harmony 🙂 I ran across Oxford often researching this. The pause when talking was very unhelpful advice. Like you, I had to relearn it and forgot that advice. That comma can sure make some mischief, I agree.

      Liked by 1 person

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  24. Ah, yes. The comma! Your teacher’s advice is shocking. But you’ve written a wonderful piece here, Denise. Sharing those seven common rules should aid many writers. Thanks for sharing your experiences with the mighty comma.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks, Beem 🙂 That is advice from the 70s and it never worked for me. It was helpful to write this and I hope to tame that mighty comma.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Sometimes it is by feel when we get to questioning whether the comma should be there or not, Audrey. It doesn’t help when two different grammar programs disagree, or one takes it out only to want to put it in 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

  25. Any teacher who tells a class to put a comma where one naturally pauses is a teacher who is too lazy to learn even the most common of the comma rules. As an old high school English teacher, hearing that drives me crazy. English grammar is tricky, and I have to check things all the time. It’s just part of the writing process. You listed the most common comma rules, and they are good reminders. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 4 people

    • It wasn’t very helpful to get that advice in the 7th grade. I’m finding it is tricky but not impossible to learn at a later age. There is so much good information at our disposal. Thank you 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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