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? Consider eight situations that illustrate the importance of commas.
1. Wrapping Around Clauses
One of the most welcomed attributes of a comma is its ability to wrap its arms around a clause. 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. For example:
- I'd like to make it clear that, while I understand your concern, you are abjectly wrong, and I'm no longer listening to you.
How can you tell if you have a clause that needs a little comma action? Simply take the side-tangent out of the sentence. If it's still a complete sentence without the veered-off thought, then insert commas around the clause.
2. Making the Introductions
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:
- While I understand your concern, you're abjectly wrong and I'm no longer listening to you.
- Being a recluse, Dawn stayed home most days.
Always use a comma to introduce the preamble to a sentence. Introductory phrases can also be spotted a mile away if they contain gerunds.
3. Announcing FANBOYS
This mnemonic device FANBOYS (F-for, A-and, N-nor, B-but, O-or, Y-yet, S-so) is, surely, a fan-favorite. It alludes to coordinating conjunctions, or connectors, that typically need a comma placed before them.
A comma is needed when a FANBOYS word is used to separate two independent clauses to form a compound sentence.
- She loves to walk on the beach, so she tries to visit it every morning.
A comma works here because it separates two independent clauses (two subjects and two verbs that make up two complete thoughts), the second of which begins with a coordinating conjunction.
Be aware, though, that FANBOYS words don't always require a comma. No comma is needed when a coordinating conjunction connects an independent clause to a dependent clause.
- She loves the beach and visits it daily.
Here, there is no need for a comma because the sentence doesn't have two independent clauses. The second clause does not contain a subject. It could not stand on its own as a sentence, so it is a dependent clause.
4. Inside or Outside Quotation Marks?
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.
Introducing a Quotation
A comma is the most commonly used punctuation mark to introduce a quotation and, in this case, does not go inside the quotation marks.
- She said, "I love to punctuate with perfection." He said, "I do, too."
Ending a Quotation
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.
- "I love her commitment to correct punctuation," he said to his brother.
Notice how, even if the sentence is continuing, the punctuation gets placed within the quotation marks? These two tidy tips will keep you ahead of the pack when it comes to determining if punctuation goes inside quotation marks or not.
5. Enter the Oxford Comma
When listing things, many people don't use the Oxford comma, meaning they 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? Also called the serial comma, the easiest way to describe Oxford commas is with an illustration.
- no Oxford comma - When you go out, please bring me back ice cream, licorice, Windex and applesauce.
- Oxford comma - When you go out, please bring me back ice cream, licorice, Windex, and applesauce.
In the first sentence, this person seems to be asking for Windex and applesauce 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. Learn more about using the Oxford comma.
6. The Dreaded Comma Splice
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.
- incorrect - My friend loves video games, I gave him Zelda.
- incorrect - That's a lovely shade of lipstick, it's so your color.
In the incorrect examples above, a comma separates (splices) two complete sentences, creating run-on sentences. These commas should be replaced with a period or semicolon. A comma would've worked in these examples if a coordinating conjunction was placed after the comma:
- correct - My friend loves video games, so I gave him Zelda..
- correct - That's a lovely shade of lipstick, and it's so your color.
7. Deciding Between a Comma or Semicolon
Looking back at one of the opening examples, it’s time to welcome the semicolon to the punctuation party. It is, after all, kin to the comma. Semicolons should only be used to break apart two complete sentences, whereas commas should only be used to introduce clauses.
Incorrect Semicolon Usage
A common error involves using a semicolon between independent and dependent clauses.
- incorrect - I love your gardens; in all their wonder.
These are two connected thoughts, but the second part (after the semicolon) is not a complete sentence. It is a dependent clause.
Correcting Semicolon Misuse
There are a few ways to properly punctuate these clauses, including one option that allows you to keep the semicolon.
- comma - I love your gardens, in all their wonder. (A comma offers a natural pause without breaking up the sentence.)
- period - I love your gardens. They provide such wonder. (Use a period so you have two short, concise sentences.)
- semicolon - I love your gardens; they provide such wonder. (Add the word they to turn the second clause into an independent clause.)
8. Avoiding Comma Catastrophes
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, then 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 the difference between cannibalism and inviting grandma to dinner.
- incorrect - It's time to eat Grandma!
- correct - It's time to eat, Grandma!
Poor Grandma! Pop in a comma and Grandma gets to live another day.
Take a Deeper Dive Into the Power of Commas
Consider the grammatical ferocity of commas in the following three examples. Do you see anything wrong with these sentences?
- Let's go get a little Italian baby.
- My new puppy likes to play catch, I bought him a frisbee.
- We believe you moved to this town for its natural beauty and surrounding area; a community neighborhood.
Are You Really Going Baby Shopping?
In the first example, what exactly is that person planning to do with an Italian baby once they get it? Were they trying to tell their loved one that they're in the mood for some Italian food? In which case, the sentence should likely read:
- Let's go get a little Italian, baby.
Just Say No to Comma Splices
In the second example, a comma is providing a pause (good), but it's acting like a period or a semicolon (bad). A comma should never separate two complete sentences. Either a period or a semicolon needed to step in between those lines:
- My new puppy likes to play catch. I bought him a frisbee.
This Is No Place for a Semicolon
In the third example, a semicolon is the wrong choice of punctuation. A semicolon should never separate two incomplete sentences. Semicolons are used to illustrate a pause between two complete sentences whose meaning is very closely linked.
- We believe you moved to this town for its natural beauty and surrounding area, a community neighborhood.
The Mighty Comma
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. Most people don’t walk out of the house without a care for how they look. Think of your writing in the same manner. Who wants to put out something with glaring errors and total disregard for this important piece of punctuation? Now that you understand the power of the comma, turn your attention to mastering all nine comma rules.