I’ve found, in my writing career, that the number one source of mind numbing, grammatically frustrating, hair pulling terrors that await when structuring a sentence stem from a slight mark on the page. The comma.
In fact, as I’m writing this blog entry, a numerous amount of grammatical experts could sit around a large table and dissect my comma usage only to find that none would agree on the level of correctness in the judgement I had used in my comma placing. It’s hard to find a set rule to live by when the field of commas is based on preference.
So how exactly do you know when to insert the comma on the page, in the sentence? It seems to have become this guessing game of, when in doubt, slap it in there. Or, if there is a doubt, it doesn’t belong. I’ve heard both. And as a tutor, I find I spend a significant amount of time fixing the guessing game that developing writers, and even experienced writers, play in an attempt at knowing the comma and its correct usage.
In my own writing career, I’ve come to acknowledge a growth in my fondness for this particular grammatical feature. The power of this simple mark that cradles words amazes me just how much impact it can have on meaning, reading, and aesthetic appeal. The way it creates complexity and rhythm influenced my opinion in its favor.
However, I know that not everyone shares this passion for the usage of commas. And in an attempt at recruiting writers over to the comma side, I’ll try to inspire with a few simple steps that might allow you to find the comma process a bit easier and slightly more accessible.
Pause! In the Name of Commas.
There are mixed feelings about this method, and honestly, it goes back to preference. But when I teach the students that come in to the writing center about commas, I generally fall back on this simple explanation.
Read the sentence aloud. When you pause, there should be a comma.
Now, I know this doesn’t necessarily work every time, nor is it a strategy for every writer. If you constantly run out of breath in the middle of speaking, and you pause between wheezes, you might run into problems with this method.
Generally, in speech, we pause when there needs to be a comma. It happens naturally when we use introductory words before the main clause, or when we interject different thoughts in the midst of a complete sentence. It isn’t a perfect method, and it takes practice. But for a student just starting out in the art of comma usage, it helps.
-Comma-nds to Follow
As for specific rules in grammatically correct comma usage, I found that the Google Search Engine would generate more accurate and better explained results than my memory could. I ended up coming across Purdue Owl’s (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/01/) section on comma rules to follow.
1. When combining separate independent clauses with the coordinating conjunctions, and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet, you need to slap that comma right in there before the conjunctions.
2. When it comes to clauses, phrases, or words before the main clause, I find that this is the easiest rule to live by, or at least, the easiest rule to pick up on. After the introduction of the sentence, you need to place a comma.
3. Make sure to surround clauses, phrases, or words in the middle of a sentence that is not essential in creating clarity in the sentence with commas. Place one commas before to show the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.
4. I would say the series rule is perhaps the most well known rule when it comes to comma usage. Be sure to use commas to detach three or more words, phrases, or clauses when in sequence.
5. When using two or more coordinate adjectives that pertain to the same noun, you need to separate said adjectives with our lovely commas. However, be careful not to stamp the comma after the final adjective, or to use commas that with adjectives that contrast each other.
6. Set a comma near the end of the sentence when you come across a clear pause or shift, or when you find an opposing coordinating element.
7. Place commas to signify phrases at the end of the sentence that reference the beginning or middle of the same sentence. These phrases are known as free modifiers, and they should be able to be inserted anywhere within the sentence without causing puzzlement.
8. Attach commas to all geographical names, items in dates (except for the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names. I’ve found that it is rare that you’ll need to apply this rule, but it makes sense to acknowledge its existence.
9. Whenever you use a quote in the midst of a sentence, you’ll need to place a comma in between the main discourse and the quotation.
10. And finally, use commas wherever you find necessary to skirt around possible confusion or misreading. The pause method really helps here.
If commas are something that you really struggle with, or even slightly struggle with, try reading the rules before you begin in your writing. That way, they’ll be fresh in your mind.
Knowing the exact rules can help you become more confident in where you place the commas. Learn them, write them down, save the link I placed up above. In fact, just save this blog entry to reference when writing your papers. Once you’ve found that technique that helps you form a healthy habit of knowing when to place the commas, really dig deep in research and understand why you place commas where you do.
However, what I’ve found that has best helped me in knowing where to place commas is simply to write. The more you write, the more practice you’ll have in applying your comma knowledge, and the more natural you’ll be at knowing where the commas go. I’m not saying you’ll never mess up again; everyone messes up. It can’t be helped. But your errors will continue to appear less and less until finally, you will consistently create a work that is comma error free.
Use “Comma” Sense.
Take the knowledge you know and dive on in. Use your common sense and trust that you know what you’re doing. Learn the rules, use the suggestions that I offered to you, and free fall into comma bliss. Confidence is key not only in knowing where to place commas, but in writing in general.
If you mess up, that’s okay. Learn where you went wrong and remember for the next time you come across a similar situation. Commas aren’t scary, they aren’t daunting. They are simply misunderstood. Soon, with lots of practice, you can become a comma conquerer.
It’s quite the achievement.