The Dreaded Comma (Part 2)
November 14, 2013

The Dreaded Comma (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this, I explained the rules of using a comma with a series, adjective, titles, dates, locations, and sentences with coordinating conjunctions. I will finish this with explaining clauses, phrases, sentences, and comma usage. These are probably where people make the most mistakes, so I will try to keep these as simple as possible.

Let’s start with clauses. There are many clauses in the English language, but the short explanation with clauses is if they start a sentence then put a comma at the end of the clause. For example:

When I was a little girl, I loved to eat Circus Peanuts.

Since the night is young, let’s grab some coffee.

If he receives a good grade, he’ll be able to go on the trip.

Now, if the clause ends the sentence, do not put a comma before it.

I loved to eat Circus Peanuts when I was a little girl.

Let’s grab some coffee since the night is young.

He’ll be able to go on the trip if he receives a good grade.

The same is true when we begin a sentence with a phrase that is short.

Laughing loudly, she showed her mirth.

With determination, he walked to the door, opened it, and left his life behind.

To learn more, Des took a language class.

Though the introductory clauses and phrases may have differences, the comma rule is the same. If a short phrase or clause begins a sentence, put a comma after it. In fact, this is true of introductory or transitional words. Let’s look at some examples:

In fact, commas are very difficult to use.

However, he ran a mile in under five minutes.

Yes, I enjoy working on writing.

Now, don’t commas seem a little easier?

For example, Jim learned to throw pots in two weeks.

Along with clauses, phrases, and words that begin sentences, sometimes we write sentences where the clause interrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, surround the clause with commas. Here is an example:

Living in the south, as you can imagine, means experiencing very hot summers.

We similarly set off nonessential clauses, phrases, and words with commas as well. Nonessential clauses, phrases, or words are those not needed in the description or identification of someone or something in the sentence. Here are examples of nonessential clauses, phrases, and words and how to use commas with them:

Jenny, who works all of the time, finally took a vacation.

She works hard, on the other hand, because she wants to succeed.

The goal, therefore, is to learn how to use commas.

These sentences could easily stand alone without the clause, phrase, or word, but these enhance the sentence. However, that means that they are nonessential and must be set off with commas.

Next, we move onto the less often used comma rules. Should you write something with dialogue or direct quotations then you use the comma to introduce the quote as well as to interrupt it.

Charly said, “I just want to go outside.”

“Why,” he began, “must you always interrupt me?”

“I don’t want to write my paper,” she told her friend.

Now we head to home base with comma usage. See, I told you it was complicated. The penultimate rule is to use a comma to separate a statement from a question:

I’m a nice person, aren’t I?

I work every day, don’t you know?

Similarly, use the comma to separate two contrasting statements:

Jess is Sarah’s boyfriend, not Jen’s.

The diploma belongs to me, not to my parents.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has a perfect breakdown of the comma rules:

  1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
  2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.
  3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.
  4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. That clauses following a verb expressing mental action are always essential.
  5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.
  6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.
  7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.
  8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer back to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion.
  9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.
  10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.
  11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

Yeah, so, no wonder people struggle with comma usage. To complicate matters, Microsoft Word’s grammar check often misguides writers, which means even more struggle. Hopefully, these two articles will help us all to use commas correctly. At the very least, they will be a good reference, right?

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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