Commas: The Joy and Bane of Writers

If you ask one-hundred writers the proper use of commas, you’ll likely get one-hundred-and one (or more) answers. The grammar rules might not have changed much, but the editorial preferences sure have.

Now, this post may get a bit more grammatically technical than usual, but I hope you’ll hang in for the ride.

Where To Use Commas

The Oxford Comma

I would be quite remise if I had any discussion of commas without discussing the Oxford comma. On Twitter, my pinned tweet (as of this post) has long been declaring fellow lovers of the Oxford comma supreme.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the Oxford comma refers to the use of the comma before the word ‘and’ during a list of items. It is also known as the serial comma. For example:

Morgan, Sara, and Kelly went to the coffeeshop to write.

Oxford comma

Morgan, Sara and Kelly went to the coffeeshop to write.

No Oxford comma

Now, while I would love to claim it is necessary, I must admit the truth. The Oxford comma is optional, unless the meaning of the sentence would be confused without it. You’ll often see memes of sentences arranged to make the meaning garbled without the Oxford comma.

In this next example, the implication is that the writer’s parents are named “Ayn Rand” and “God.”

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Internet meme

Obviously, if “my parents” were listed last, this wouldn’t be a concern.

Conjoining Independent Clauses

Independent clauses are effectively two sentences conjoined with a conjunction (and, but, or, because, …). Basically, if both halves can stand alone as a complete sentence, you need a comma.

I’m going to write my blogpost, and you get to read it tomorrow.

Around Phrases That Aren’t at the End of the Sentence

What do I mean by phrases? If you’re not like me and didn’t have your mother give you grammar books to work on over summer vacation, you might not be as familiar with the next few concepts.

The first type of phrases are: introductory or conditional phrases — like the ‘if…’ part of the sentence I just gave, “When I was younger,” and that sort of thing.

The next are prepositional phrases (although, sometimes can be ignored for shorter ones. Prepositions are words that tell of spacial or timing relationships. “On the box”, “in my stomach”, “around the corner”, “after lunch”. For example:

If the phrase is at the start of the sentence, you put the comma after it.

For phrases in the middle of the sentence, on the other hand, you bracket the phrase with commas.

The comma is often not necessary at the end of the sentence.

There are two caveats to this rule. The big one is, if the sentence would not make sense without the phrase, or is part of the subject, then the comma should be omitted. For example:

The writer in the blue shirt is running away.

And the rule is in the example for the next one:

The second is for phrases that begin with the word “that”.

After Introductory Words

Well, you know I like to start sentences with introductory words. So, you’ll see tons of examples of this on my blog. Yes, you may find it excessive. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not valid!

In-between Coordinated Adjectives

I had to look up the details on this one, and I’ve been messing it up because I thought it was ALL adjectives, but knew it looked wrong.

For those of you whose grammar lessons were long ago and far away, adjectives are words that describe a noun. A noun is a person, place, or thing.

So, here’s an example of a list of coordinated adjectives:

Let’s describe a well-rested, happy, contented writer.

Besides imaginary, note that I use commas between all of those descriptors. What makes them coordinated? I can re-order them and it makes equal sense. Plus, obviously, I can use the word “and” in between each of them.

What makes an adjective list un-coordinated?

How about a writer fueled by a cold-brew mocha latte?

While still not me, at least, you’ll see that none of those descriptors can be “and”ed. They’re all describing one particular type of coffee, rather than the descriptors of the imaginary writer who can be many things.

For Contrast

This one’s a little self-explanatory, but these are typically at the end of a sentence, often when you want to invoke a response from the reader (or the one being spoken to).

You’ve used a comma for contrast before, haven’t you?

To Offset Dialogue Tags

The joy of being a writer is finding the right balance between too many, and not enough dialogue tags.

“Do you ever know,” she asked, “if you’ve got them right?”

He said, “a proofreader would know.”

“I hope so,” she replied.

Where NOT To Use Commas

Between Verbs

Not every use of the word “and” deserves a comma before it. When you have multiple verbs or verb phrases next to each other, they are not treated like nouns with an Oxford comma. (For those of you who forgot, a verb is simply the action word (or state of being) used in the sentence.

You don’t need a comma to revise and edit your work.

Between Subjects

The subject of a sentence is the noun (or implied noun) who is doing the verb action.

Morgan is blogging.

In this simple sentence, “Morgan” is the subject, “is blogging” is the verb. [Note: I think, since I’ve verbified the word “blogging”, that it is not a gerund in this instance. A gerund is a noun turned into an action by use of adding -ing.]

But, when if I have two subjects, even if they’re described by a phrase, we don’t add a comma.

The owner of this blog and Ellie are blogging.

Sometimes, those gerunds I was just talking about get used as a subject themselves.

Writing all night is bad for your health.

Where It Gets Wiggly

It used to be, especially in dialogue, the writer would put in commas at every instance the speaker would pause.

My voice acting group used to do the same.

But, we’ve found that we get better results not dictating the commas.

And the publishing world seems to have agreed.

Unless it can change the meaning of the sentence, it’s currently recommended to avoid commas where not grammatically necessary. It can be useful for differentiating voices between characters, but much can also be said about verb and other word choice.


Any comma questions? Anything I got wrong? Let me know and I’ll fix it.

I double-checked the guidelines at this Perdue writing site google gave me.

7 thoughts on “Commas: The Joy and Bane of Writers

  1. I and others, including Morgan, are still discussing the idea that, perhaps, I might use commas in the manner that I might add ze French accent, to give ze character a manner of speaking that allows the reader to distinguish between them, and other characters. This can be important if, for example, you have an ensemble cast.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Week In Review: January 29nd | Morgan Hazelwood: Writer In Progress

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