The DumbLittleMan Guide To Comma Use

This post, from Steven Aitchison, originally appeared on DumbLittleMan on 10/23/09.

If all the punctuation marks got together for a party, the party wouldn’t come alive until the comma arrived. The comma is such a versatile little animal. Often abused, under-used and over-used, the comma can be a readers best friend, but a writer’s worst enemy.

Whilst the full stop is the red light to a sentence, the comma has the ability to keep the green light on a sentence for a long time. With its versatility it can keep complex sentences coherent, it can add additional information, add afterthoughts, and enlarge upon thoughts.

I bet you didn’t think a little curl of a pen mark could evoke such passion.

I have been fascinated with the comma ever since an English teacher told me, ‘The best way to use a comma is to think of it as a way of pausing before moving on to the next part of the sentence.’, whilst this is a myth it is a good way to get started thinking about commas. However, there are so many other ways it can be used.

9 ways to use the comma

 

  1. To glue two sentences together
    When two complete sentences (independent clauses) are joined by a conjunction such as the words; and, but, or for.

    Example:

    The post about commas seemed like an unusual topic, but it managed to bring in over 100 comments.

    You will see that the sentence above could quite easily be split into two sentences with the use of a full stop to read:

    The post about commas seemed like an unusual topic. It managed to bring in over 100 comments.

     

  2. To give additional information
    Commas are great in allowing us to give additional information in a sentence. The additional information is called an appositive phrase, which is a noun or a phrase placed next to a word to provide identification or give additional information.

    Example:

    Jay White, the owner of this blog, is seen as an authoritative figure in the world of blogging.

    You will see that, ‘the owner of this blog’, is not really necessary, but it does provide additional information, which could be useful.

  3. Writing a series of three or more words or phrases

    Example:

    He was tall, dark, and handsome.

    He opened the email, read it, and decided to publish the article he had been sent.

    Note that you do not need to use the last comma in each of the sentences above. However, this is a matter of personal preference. Whichever way you choose, use it as consistently as possible.
     

  4. Non restrictive phrases
    Non restrictive phrases give additional information to a reader, but it is not essential to the sentence to be understood.

    Example:

    My son, who is an artist, enjoys listening to trance music.

    You’ll see from the above sentence that if we were to take out ‘who is an artist’ the sentence would still hold. It is a non essential piece of information.

    However, if I had two or more sons, the non restrictive phrase ‘who is an artist’ would become essential for identification and therefore the commas would be left out because the phrase becomes essential to identify which of my two sons I was speaking about.
     

Read the rest of the post, which includes 5 more examples of correct comma usage and three of incorrect usage, on DumbLittleMan.

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