5.2 Commas

Preview

This section of Ch. 5 will cover the following topics:

  • basic comma rules
  • run-on sentences/comma splices

Commas are the most frequently used punctuation mark, but they are also the most common punctuation error.

Like other punctuation, the job of a comma is to help the reader understand how something would be said. The word “comma” comes from the Greek word meaning “to cut off.” The message commas send is this: pause here, just for a second.

Try to read the following sentence:

I have three pigs four cats with six toes a gerbil named Hammy an old spotted cow who still gives milk and an Irish wolfhound named Vanessa.

You don’t know where to pause; you struggle to break the information into understandable chunks. Now read this:

I have three pigs, four cats with six toes, a gerbil named Hammy, an old spotted cow who still gives milk, and an Irish wolfhound named Vanessa.

Commas help us translate words on the page into meaning. But incorrect comma use makes the reader’s job harder. For example, look at these two sentences:

I love my parents, Beyonce and Barack Obama.

I love my parents, Beyonce, and Barack Obama.

The only difference is a comma.  But if you put a comma after “Beyonce,” the sentence says you love four people. Without that comma, the sentence says that your parents are Beyonce and Barak Obama!

It’s the writer’s responsibility to use commas correctly, not the reader’s responsibility to figure out what the writer meant.

Basic Comma Rules

  • Commas have two jobs: they either separate or they enclose. Remember that, and you are halfway there.
  • There are seven main rules for comma use. Understanding these seven rules will eliminate nearly all of the comma errors in your writing.

Commas That Separate

Rule 1: Use a comma to separate joined by the known as “fanboys.” The word “fanboys” stands for the first letter of those conjunctions: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

For example:

  • We brought chips to the party, and our neighbors were appreciative. (“We brought chips to the party” is an independent clause–it has a subject, a verb, and a complete thought. “our neighbors were appreciative” is also an independent clause. The two independent clauses are joined by the conjunction “and,” so we put a comma in front of “and.”)
  • Tip

    This comma rule is probably the most difficult. Master it and the others will seem easy!

    My geology textbook is expensive, so I’ll find a used copy. (“My geology textbook is expensive” is an independent clause. “I’ll find a used copy” is also an independent clause. The two independent clauses are joined by “so.” Put a comma in front of “so.”)

Caution: Be sure the conjunction connects two independent clauses, not just two words or two phrases or even two dependent clauses. For example:

My dog curled up on the sofa and waited for dinner. (“and” joins the verbs “curled” and “waited.” The phrase “waited for dinner” is not an independent clause.  No comma before “and.”)

This rule clarifies a term you have probably heard: . If we put a comma between independent clauses that are NOT joined by “fanboys,” that is a “comma splice.” The comma is splicing, or cutting, the sentence in two parts. A comma splice is a comma error.

Here is a comma splice:

Dogs are people’s best friends, people are a cat’s best friend.

To fix this error, add one of the “fanboys”:

Dogs are people’s best friends, but people are a cat’s best friend.

Understanding how a comma splice works has the added benefit of explaining what a run-on sentence is. A run-on sentence is two or more independent clauses connected improperly.  For example:

I love to eat ice cream I would eat it every day if I could.

That can be fixed by adding a comma and the conjunction “and” after “ice cream,” or by putting a period after “ice cream” and making two sentences.

Exercise 1

Turn the sentence pairs below into a single sentence by adding a separating comma and a “fanboys” conjunction.

  1. Ellen wanted a book to read at bedtime. She checked her bookcase.
  2. We could go to Paris for vacation. We could go to the beach instead.
  3. I want a college education. I want to start a career.
  4. Sarah needs a different job. She has started interviewing.
  5. The weather is getting colder.  We decided to stay home.

Rule 2: Use commas to separate items in a series, date, or address. This comma allows the reader to pause after each item and identify which words are included in a group.

For example:

  • We need to get flour, tomatoes, and cheese at the store. (Separate items in a list with commas. Writers sometimes leave out the comma before “and” when the meaning is clear. That kind of comma is called an “Oxford comma,” by the way.)
  • Mr. Schaeffer could see a wild, overgrown jungle in his neighbor’s yard.  (Use commas between a series of adjectives that modify a noun.)
  • My grandfather was born on August 13, 1897, in Alameda County. (In a date, put a comma between the day and the year. If the sentence continues on, put a comma after the year. When only the month and year are used, no comma is needed. For example: He was born in August 1897.)
  • My best friend’s address is 2600 Trillium Avenue, Mill Creek, Washington 97202, and she visits me often. (Put a comma after the street and after the city, but not between the state and the zip code. If you continue the sentence after the address, add a comma after the address.)

Rule 3: Use a comma to separate an introductory word or from the beginning of the main sentence.

For example:

  • Finally, he received an Oscar for his work in film. (introductory word)
  • During last season, our team won nearly every game. (introductory phrase)

Rule 4: Use a comma to separate a tag question, contrast, comment, or description from the end of the main sentence. (A “tag” is an afterthought.)

For example:

  • The age restriction goes into effect in March, doesn’t it? (tag question)
  • Students who earn high grades are those who study, not those who cheat. (tag contrast)
  • She said she would “consider my application,” whatever that means. (tag comment)
  • We spent a month in Italy, visiting family. (tag description)

Most prepositional phrases and dependent clauses at the end of sentences are not tags and do not require commas. For example:

The word “ruminate” means to think about something. (“about something” is a prepositional phrase, not a tag. No comma.)

Exercise 2

Type these sentences, adding commas where necessary to separate.

  1. Her holiday card was postmarked December 7 2020 but I didn’t receive it until January.
  2. I recently moved from my dorm to an apartment at 2055 High Street Eugene Oregon 97401.
  3. In a flash the barista had Chris’s latte on the counter.
  4. Confused but persistent Sarah tried opening the door with a different key.
  5. I prefer hot chocolate to coffee or tea don’t you?
  6. The best dogs are loyal and sweet not necessarily well behaved.

Commas That Enclose

Rule 5: Commas are used to enclose (placed before and after) the name of a person being spoken to in a sentence.

For example:

Did you know, Sophia, that you left your book in class?

Tip

When people start studying commas, they tend to insert them everywhere. Don’t put a comma in a sentence unless you can explain the rule for doing so.

Rule 6: Commas are used to enclose transitions or expressions that interrupt the flow of the sentence.

For example:

I know, by the way, that my paper is late.

I will try, therefore, to be on time in the future.

If you are unsure whether an expression is interrupting, say it aloud.  You can hear the pause before and after “by the way” in the first sentence.  Remember that punctuation is trying to communicate how we would say the words.

Rule 7: Use commas to enclose extra or unnecessary information in the middle of a sentence.

For example:

Max O’Keefe, who organized the event, will introduce the speakers.

Be sure the information is unnecessary:

The person who organized the event will introduce the speakers. (We don’t know which person without the phrase “who organized the event.”  No commas.)

Exercise 3

Type these short paragraphs, inserting commas where necessary. At the end of each sentence, write the number of the rule you used.

  1. Our meeting is scheduled for Thursday March 20. To prepare for the meeting please print any e-mails faxes or documents referred to in your report.
  2. The leader of the group Garth kept checking their GPS location. Isabelle Raoul and Maggie carried the equipment. As a result no one noticed the darkening sky until the first drops of rain.
  3. Please submit your application to Roger by April 15 2020. In your cover letter include contact information the position for which you are applying and two references. We will not be available for questions after April 10 but you may contact the office before then.

Takeaways

  • Commas separate or enclose units in a sentence.
  • Never use a comma unless you know which rule you are following.

License

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1, 2, 3 Write! by Gay Monteverde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.