The Dreaded Comma (Part 1)
November 13, 2013

The Dreaded Comma (Part 1)

Every once in a while, I will write an article about grammar, punctuation, and writing in general. Sometimes the writing will be focused on academic writing while other times it will be more creative in content. See, the thing about American English is we have these rules for grammar and punctuation, only not really. Sometimes we adhere to a rule while others we call it an exception thus the rub and frustration in writing.

For the first couple, I thought I would start with everyone’s least favorite punctuation mark, the comma. The comma is complicated enough that it requires at least two articles. Now, I do not think anyone out there hates the comma (although I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they did), but just about everyone struggles with using it. So let’s get to it.

First of all, let’s look at the comma in lists and with adjectives. When you have a series of three or more items, then you use the comma to separate these items. Here is an example:

I have American Literature, Composition I, Biology, and College Algebra this semester.

Note the commas separating the items in the list. Now here is an instance where the rule has some, shall we say, flexibility. See, we have something called the Oxford comma, which is the comma before the conjunction in a list of three or more. In the example above, I used the Oxford comma because I have chosen to commit to it and use it. However, many writers today (and many teachers of writing) do not, so instead the above example would look like this:

I have American Literature, Composition I, Biology and College Algebra this semester.

I use the Oxford comma because my favorite grammar and usage book (The Elements of Style by Strunk and White) recommends it. What I tell my students is be consistent. Either use it or don’t, but do not flip flop between using the comma before the conjunction or not.

The second rule of commas is to use them when two or more adjectives describe a noun and can be separated by the word and. Similarly, if an –ly adjective and a regular adjective describe a noun, use the comma in between them. Here are two example sentences:

Two or more adjectives

The tall, dark dog barked at the little girl.

An –ly adjective with a regular adjective

The friendly, little girl wanted to pet the dark dog.

Now onto titles, dates, and locations. Let’s start with titles. When using an appositive, a title that renames a noun, set it off with commas.

My doctor, Laura, works at home.

Athena, the cat, attacks strangers in her home.

When using titles of degrees, also set those off with commas.

Rayshell E. Clapper, M.A., M.Ed., B.A.

For dates written the American way of month-day-year, use a comma after the day and after the year unless any part of the date is missing.

She was born on May 8, 1976, in Oklahoma.

November 7, 2013, was an uneventful day.

October 2013 looked to be a beautiful month for Oklahoma Fall.

On July 4 we celebrate our independence.

Finally, with locations in the US, separate the city from the state with a comma and the state from the rest of the sentence with a comma when in the middle unless, of course, you are using the state abbreviations.

In Norman, Oklahoma, students walk the halls of the University of Oklahoma.

We travel to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a conference.

Going to New Orleans, LA always promises fun.

Let’s end this one with commas, sentences, and conjunctions. So beyond using a comma with a conjunction in lists of three items or more, you also use it when the coordinating conjunction connects two complete sentences. If you have the following two sentences:

The phone rang twice.

It stopped before anyone could answer it.

And you want to make it compound by combining the two sentences using a coordinating conjunction, you would put a comma before the conjunction:

The phone rang twice, but it stopped before anyone could answer it.

If either what precedes the conjunction (The phone rang twice) or what follows it (it stopped before anyone could answer it) is not a complete sentence, then you do not put a comma before the conjunction.

The phone rang twice but stopped before anyone could answer it.

In the next installment, I will look at clauses, phrases, introductory words, and sentences. Stay tuned!

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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