Monday, June 2, 2014

The Least You Should Know - Commas

salt shaker image
Commas are like salt, either you use too much or not enough. In any editor's opinion, commas are used too much. And, like most seasonings, if you use too much, you lose the ultimate flavor of the dish and end up with bitter food.

So, to help you keep the seasonings light in your writing, we're going to discuss the proper use of the comma.

Number one rule: Don't use a comma unless you know a rule for it.

Commas are important for your reader. Without commas, you reader would often have to go back and reread a sentence to find out exactly what you meant to write.

Don't keep the reader guessing or having to interpret your writing. Your book may end up thrown against the furthest wall.

For you, my dear writer, I'll give you the six comma rules. Master these rules and your writing will be easier to read. And, that makes a happy reader. Ultimate goal, right?

1. Put a comma before and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so when they connect two independent clauses.

We lost the stick, and that was the end of the game of fetch.

We may have a donut, or we may have an apple.

Be sure the above mentioned words do connect two independent clauses. The following sentence is merely one independent clause with one subject and two verbs. Therefore no comma should be used.

I wanted to go to the beach but couldn't find my swimsuit.


2. Put a comma between items in a series.

Hurrah for the red, white, and blue.

He picked up the mail, walked into the house, and answered the telephone.

Some words "go together" and don't need a comma between them even though they do make up a series.

The eager little boy.

The wrinkled old hands.

Here is a way to tell whether a commas is needed between two words in a series: see whether and could be used naturally between them.

It would sound okay to say red and white and blue; therefore commas are used. But, it would not sound right to say eager and little boy or wrinkled and old hands; therefore no commas are used. Simple enough? Just use a comma where an and could be used. Of course, it is all right to omit the comma before the and connecting the last two members of a series, but more often it is used.

If an address or date is used in a sentence, treat it as a series, putting a comma after every item, including the last.

She was born on June 29, 1972, in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up there.

She lived in Buffalo, New York, for three years.

When only the month and year are used in a date, the commas may be omitted.

In July 1998 she moved to New Jersey.

3. Put a comma after an introductory expression or afterthought that doesn't flow smoothly into the sentence. It may be a word, a group of words, or a dependent clause.

No, I will not go.

Well, that was the end of that.

Moreover, the editor agreed with me.

It's warm this afternoon, isn't it?

Running on the ice, he slipped and fell.

When everyone had left, the restaurant was locked for the night.

You already know that dependent clauses at the beginning of a sentence needs a comma after it. In the last example you can see that a comma is necessary. Otherwise the reader would read When everyone had left the restaurant ... before realizing that that was not what the writer meant. A comma prevents misreading.


4. Put commas around the name of a person spoken to.

I think, Vicki, that you are absolutely right.

Karen, how about a game of cards?

I've finished washing the dishes, Frank.


5. Put commas around an expression that interrupts the flow of the sentence. (such as however, moreover, finally, therefore, of course, by the way, on the other hand, I am sure, I think).

I hope, of course, that everyone is all right.

We took our plates, therefore, and got in the buffet line.

It should, I think, take only an hour to fix the car.

Read the preceding sentences aloud, and you will hear how those expressions interrupt the flow of the sentence. Sometimes, however, such expressions flow smoothly into the sentence and don't need commas around them. Whether a word is an interrupter or not often depends on where it is in the sentence. If it is in the middle of the sentence, it is more likely to be an interrupter than if it is at the beginning or the end. The expressions that were interrupters in the preceding sentences are not interrupters in the following sentences and therefore don't need commas.

Of course I hope that everyone is all right.

Therefore we took our plates and got in the buffet line.

I think it should only take an hour to fix the car.

So, a word like however or therefore may be used in three ways:

a. as an interrupter (commas around it)
b. as a word that flows into the sentence (no commas needed)
c. as a connecting word between two independent clauses (semicolon before it and a comma after it)


6. Put commas around nonessential material.

Some written material may be interesting, but the main idea of the sentence would be clear without it. In the following sentence

Albert Connor, who is running for president, will speak tomorrow.

the clause who is running for president is not essential to the main idea of the sentence. Without it we still know exactly who the sentence is about and what he is going to do: Albert Connor will speak tomorrow. Therefore the nonessential material is set off from the rest of the sentence by commas to show that it could be left out. But in the following sentence

The man who is running for president will speak tomorrow.

the clause who is running for president is essential to the main idea of the sentence. Without it the sentence would read: The man will speak tomorrow. We would have no idea which man. The clause who is running for president is essential because it tells us which man. It couldn't be left out. Therefore commas are not used around it. In this sentence

The Client, a novel by John Grisham, was a best-seller.

the words a novel by John Grisham could be left out, and we would still know the main meaning of the sentence: The Client was a best-seller. Therefore the nonessential material is set off by commas to show that it could be left out. But in this sentence

John Grisham's novel The Client was a best-seller.

the title of the novel is essential. Without it the sentence would read: John Grisham's novel was a best-seller. We would have no idea which of John Grisham's novels was a best-seller. Therefore the title couldn't be left out, and commas are not used around it.


In review:

1. Put a comma before and, but, for, or, nor, yet, so when they connect two independent clauses.
2. Put a comma between items in a series.
3. Put a comma after an introductory expression or afterthought that doesn't flow smoothly into the sentence.
4. Put commas around the name of a person spoken to.
5. Put commas around an interrupter, like however, moreover, etc.
6. Put commas around nonessential material.

Simple, right? I knew you'd get it. Now, go season that bit of writing you've been working on and apply these rules.