Commas are, arguably, the most important grammatical tool the English language has to offer. They splice a sentence, providing cohesion and unity. Commas also allow the reader to understand the proper connotation of a writer's words.
That's a lot of heavy lifting for little scoop-shaped squiggles, isn't it?
Let's examine their grammatical ferocity in the following three examples. Do you see anything wrong with these sentences?
In the first example, what exactly is that person planning to do with an Italian baby? Was he or she trying to tell their loved one that they're in the mood for some Italian food? In which case, the sentence should read:
In the second example, a comma is providing a pause (good), but it's acting like a period or a semi-colon (bad). A comma should never separate two complete sentences. Either a period or a semi-colon needed to step in between those lines.
In the third example - just as a comma should never separate two complete sentences - a semi-colon should never separate two incomplete sentences. Semi-colons are used to illustrate a pause between two complete sentences whose meaning is very closely linked.
Let's examine eight times when commas, or their absence, are important.
One of the most welcomed attributes of a comma is its ability to wrap its arms around a clause. For example:
Any time a sentence veers off into a side-tangent, wrap a comma around that veered-off thought. This indicates a pause at that moment.
As you write, if your spidey senses are tingling, they may be telling you that you wrote a sentence with a clause that requires a little comma action. To see if you’re right, take the side-tangent out of the sentence completely. If it's still a complete sentence without the veered-off thought, then insert commas.
Introductory phrases are a nice way to add depth and variety to your writing. In a way, they allow you to say just a little bit more in one, complete sentence. For example:
Introductory phrases can also be spotted a mile away if they contain gerunds.
As we can see, commas always want to be the ones introducing the pre-amble to a sentence.
This mnemonic device is, surely, a fan-favorite. It alludes to coordinating conjunctions, or connectors, that typically need a comma placed before them. For example:
Be aware, though, that FANBOYS don’t always require a comma. In the example above, a comma was perfectly acceptable because it separated two independent clauses (two subjects and two verbs that make up two complete thoughts), and the second one began with a coordinating conjunction.
That being said, let's take a look at a FANBOYS example that doesn’t need a comma.
Here, there’s no comma because the sentence doesn’t have two independent clauses. (The second clause does not contain a subject.)
When it comes to incorporating quotations in your text there is often confusion about just where that pesky little comma should go. There are two points to remember about commas and quotations:
A comma is the most commonly used punctuation to introduce a quotation and in this case does not go inside the quotation marks.
Commas (as well as periods) at the end of the quote do go within the quotation marks, even if they’re not part of the original quote.
Notice how, even if the sentence is continuing, the punctuation gets placed within the quotation marks? These tidy two tips will keep you ahead of the pack when it comes to the question of commas and quotations.
Also called the serial comma, the easiest way to describe these fellas is with an illustration.
In the first sentence, this person seems to be asking for Windex andapplesauce together. Who likes Windex in their applesauce?
In the second sentence, which uses the Oxford Comma,the person is saying they'd like each of those separate and distinct items. When listing things, many people don't place a comma before the last "and" in a list or series. While it’s not technically wrong, it can be confusing. Would you rather be not-wrong, or oh-so-right?
Have you ever seen the face a baby makes when tasting lemon for the first time? An improper comma splice has the same effect.
If you don't see any FANBOYS between two independent clauses (two separate thoughts), you should never see a comma. Without the presence of FANBOYS, commas just don’t belong here.
This is bad. This is worse than lemon baby face. Here, you have a comma separating two complete sentences. A period or a semi-colon is what’s needed.
This sentence is equally bad, for the same reasons. (Did you notice we used one of the FANBOYS there?) Again, a period or a semi-colon was needed in this example. A comma would've worked in the example above if a FANBOY was placed after the comma.
Looking back at one of our opening examples, let's welcome the semi-colon to our punctuation party. It is, after all, kin to the comma.
As we know, semi-colons should only be used to break apart two complete sentences, whereas commas should only be used to introduce clauses.
Let's take a look at an example that looks right, but is really quite wrong.
What's wrong with that? Those are two connected thoughts, but the second part is not a complete sentence. A comma will offer a natural pause without breaking up the sentence.
If the sentence was slightly revised with two independent clauses, then the semi-colon would fit right in.
A period would also work here.
If you're a fan of the Ernest Hemingway style of writing, you probably like to use short sentences like this in your writing.
Let's finish with one more of our opening examples. Remember the shady guy with the Italian baby? In Lynne Truss' entertaining and educational book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, she illustrates the havoc one teeny, tiny little comma can wreak.
Long story short, a panda walks into a bar, eats a sandwich (most likely bamboo shoots and leaves), pulls out a gun, and fires two shots into the air. The bartender asks what the heck's the matter with him. The panda simply tells him to read his sign and walks out. The sign says, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” This implies one must eat, then shoot and leave. No comma was required in that poor bartender's sign.
Another popular example of the confusion that leaving out a comma can cause is.
Poor Grandma! Pop in a comma and Grandma gets to live another day.
All in all, the power of the comma is mighty. Just because it's a little squiggle doesn't mean it shouldn't be paid a lot of attention. Studying this ruler of the grammar world will provide beneficial and long-lasting effects.
Who likes to walk out of the house without a care for how they look? Typically, we spend some time on our outward appearance before we take on the day. Think of your writing in the same manner.
Who wants to put out something with glaring errors and egregious disregard for the cute, little comma? Allow the comma to help you step out into the word world with your best look yet.