Pull up a chair, prop your feet on the desk, and get set for “the talk”—that dreaded chat about punctuation. While this little chat isn’t about “the birds and the bees” of reproduction, it is about a little feller known as a comma and some of the common comma errors many writers make.
Even though a punctuation discussion often leads to a rapid loss of consciousness, termed a coma, my goal is to make learning about all things writing interesting and easy to remember.
Before we go any further, let’s engage in a bit of imagery.
Function of Commas
Road signs let us know where we are, how far away we are from a destination, which direction we need to go to get there, and which exit to take to get to that destination.
A comma is like a SLOW sign you see along the side of the road while a period is like a STOP sign. One tells you to slow down and the other tells you to stop.
Simple imagery, perhaps, but extremely important imagery. The main function of commas is to prevent parts of a sentence from unexpectedly running into each other and causing confusion over what a sentence is supposed to mean, such as in the following:
Example: If you vacuum the cat will freak out.
Example: While we were eating a bat swooped low over our heads.
Using a comma will prevent the cat from being vacuumed and the bat from being eaten.
Let’s briefly look at five common comma errors but, before we do, let me briefly mention one little rule about comma usage that is not an absolute rule. This little comma rule refers to an Oxford comma or serial comma.
So, what is an Oxford comma? I’m glad you asked.
Depending on editorial preference, an Oxford comma is an optional comma used before “and” at the end of a list of three or more items to avoid confusion such as in the sentence, “I like to eat pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, and peas on Thanksgiving. Without putting a comma after gravy, you might understandably think that mashed potatoes, gravy and peas were combined in one dish.
5 Comma Rules
The following five comma rules will help clear up any confusion over when and when not to use a comma to avoid comma errors:
- Rule #1—Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the order in which the adjectives can be switched around without changing the meaning of the sentence.
Example: She likes long, interesting walks. “Lazy” and “long” can switch places and the sentence still makes sense.
Correct: She likes interesting long walks.
Example: We stayed at a cheap summer beach house. “Cheap” and “summer” cannot switch places because the sentence would not make sense.
Incorrect: We stayed at a summer cheap beach house.
You can check yourself by inserting “and” between the two adjectives. If the sentence makes sense then use a comma. If it does not make sense, leave the comma out.
- Rule #2—Often, inexperienced writers will try to hook two independent clauses together with a comma instead of rewriting the sentence or turning it into two complete sentences. This leads to the dreadful run-on sentence or, more technically, a comma splice.
Incorrect: She sold seashells by the seashore, she had pretty seashells.
Correct: She sold seashells by the seashore. She had pretty seashells.
Correct: She sold pretty seashells by the seashore.
Correct: She sold seashells by the seashore, and they were pretty seashells.
- Rule #3—Starting a sentence with a dependent clause requires a comma at the end of the dependent clause. You can also rewrite the sentence to do away with the need for a comma.
Incorrect: If you run out of cream for your coffee let me know.
Correct: If you run out of cream for your coffee, let me know.
Correct: Let me know if you run out of cream for your coffee.
- Rule #4—Use commas to set off nonessential words, phrases, or clauses. These nonessential words are used to provide an additional description for what you are writing about.
Incorrect: Deanna who is a redhead loves her son BJ very much.
Correct: Deanna, who is a redhead, loves her son, BJ, very much.
In this last sentence, commas were used to set off the name “BJ” because Deanna has more than one son. If Deanna only had one son, commas would not be required before and after “BJ”.
The second comma, at the end of the phrase or following the name, is called an apositive comma and is one many writers forget to add.
- Rule #5—Use a comma after single words that introduce a sentence. These words can include well, hello, yes, no, why, etc.
Example: Yes, I climbed the tree and I didn’t even break my leg.
Example: Well, today I bought pretty seashells down by the seashore.
Hopefully, this little punctuation chat didn’t cause a rapid loss of consciousness. Commas are tiny but very important little fellers that make the difference between writing sentences that make sense and those that cause confusion when they are read.
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