“Do I… put a comma here? Did I do it before? No, wait, crap.”
Odds are, someone somewhere is looking over a piece of writing and wondering about the mystery of commas. Or wishing they could kill them with fire.
People tend to misuse commas the way they misuse body spray: it’s either too much or not enough. Worse still, people tend to notice both, and their first reaction is to get away from the offending party as soon as possible, even if said party is the nicest person or has the most well-crafted argument on the planet.
But when something stinks, it stinks, and nothing short of a purge–of either the showering or editing variety–can salvage the situation.
Writers can easily find a variety of grammar guides on Google, but very few guides account for more recent, mainstream style choices. Style choices regulate so much about comma usage now, and it differs incredibly from writer to writer. What’s actually a “Do Not Break” comma rule, and what’s not? And when can you feel comfortable enough disregarding typical comma usage to actually strengthen your writing?
Image by Caylin (plums_deify)
The Purdue OWL website1 contains very clear rules and examples about comma usage and other writing elements and is an invaluable resource to writers and editors alike. I recommend that all readers consult Purdue, in fact, since this article will just cover the most common errors today’s writers make alongside certain instances where some errors can be acceptable.
Before launching into battle, it pays to have a little review of some commonly-used grammar terms. You probably remember from your middle school English days how easy it is to get confused if you don’t know these terms, and confusion is the last thing a writer needs to contend with.
First, you’ll hear about clauses. A clause is a group of words that must contain a subject and a verb. Subjects are usually nouns, which can be a person, place, thing, or idea, such as I, they, your mom, Doug Dimmadome (owner of the Dimmsdale Dimmadome), etc. Verbs are action words and range from the simple to the complex, such as is, ran, bamboozled, ricocheted, etc. You get the idea.
A clause is different from a phrase. A phrase is a group of words that do not contain a subject-verb component. It may have a noun or a verb, but it will not have a subject acting on a verb. Examples of phrases are in the midnight hour, between the devil and the deep blue sea, putting out the fire, etc.
Finally, a conjunction is a word that’s used to connect two words, phrases, clauses, or sentences together. There are three types, but for our purposes we’ll only be discussing the coordinating conjunction, which brings us to our first rule.
- Always place a comma between two independent clauses linked with a coordinating conjunction.
Now, what in the nine circles of hell does that mean?
A clause can be either independent or dependent. If it’s independent, that means it can stand on its own, like Beyoncé; in other words, it’s a complete sentence with a subject and a verb.
A coordinating conjunction is designed to join words or groups of words that have equal grammatical rank. These words can be as small as a list of fruit (apples, oranges, and bananas), or they could be full sentences linked together, as evidenced by what you just read.
You can easily memorize what coordinating conjunctions are by the acronym FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so).
Incorrect Example: Why have I watched Uncle Ben die twice now, but haven’t seen a Miles Morales version of Spider-Man?
“Haven’t seen a Miles Morales version of Spider-Man” is not a complete sentence/independent clause (there is no subject), so it can only be linked with a coordinating conjunction (but), not with a conjunction and a comma.
Example: I respect people’s opinion when they say they don’t like Superman, but I don’t trust them.
Since both of these clauses are independent clauses, we can link them with a comma and a coordinating conjunction.
American style in general is veering towards a “less punctuation is better” trend, for better or for worse. As both an editor and a reader, I’m seeing more instances in published works where a comma isn’t used to link two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction.
Don’t get too excited yet. You’re not out of the killzone, because these instances seem to have some commonality to them.
First, the two independent clauses have to be closely related to each other with no possibility of confusion. Second, it’s also preferable if they’re both short clauses.
Example: Harley Quinn holds an M.D. in Psychiatry but her genius-level intellect is often overlooked.
If there is any possibility of confusion or ambiguity, then a comma is always needed. Like the ceasefire between Don Corleone and the Five Families in The Godfather, this is non-negotiable.
Ambiguous Example: Hannibal Lecter ate Dr. Gideon and Will Graham has his suspicions.
The way the sentence initially reads, Hannibal can be mistaken as eating Dr. Gideon and Will Graham. But in reality, he’s only eaten the former. Sure, a quick re-read clears up the confusion, but you don’t want to bring attention to the writing itself and make your reader struggle more than necessary. If it happens too often, they’ll stop reading.
Correct Example: Hannibal Lecter ate Dr. Gideon, and Will Graham has his suspicions.
- After an introductory phrase, use a comma before an independent clause.
Certain words such as while, after, because, although, and when often begin introductory phrases and should alert you that a comma needs to follow soon after. Writers should only do this when the introductory phrase begins the sentence, not after an independent clause.
Incorrect Example: Bruce Banner took an Advil, while Tony Stark created a murder bot.
Correct Example: While Tony Stark created a murder bot, Bruce Banner took an Advil.
Terry Pratchett. From reading his book, Mort, I’ve found that he seems to be a great example of the exception. The late author did not use commas after introductory phrases, and are you really going to argue with a man who’s a consistent New York Times Bestseller with more than eighty million copies of his books sold worldwide?
The thing about Terry, though, is that he was consistent; he only used commas like this if it was absolutely necessary to have a dramatic pause in place for the reader. His consistency in the rules he followed are what gave him credibility as a writer and as the exception to this rule.
Example: When he wasn’t out on what Death referred to as THE DUTY* Mort assisted Albert, or found jobs in the garden, or browsed through Death’s extensive library, reading with the speed and omnivorousness common to those who discover the magic of the written word for the first time.
*The rule would indicate a comma should go here, but Pratchett is as Pratchett does.
- Do not use commas to link independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction.
The more common name for this kind of error is called a comma splice. It’s when a writer uses a comma as they would for full-stop punctuation, such as a period or a semicolon.
The thing is, though, commas are not strong like ox! They’re actually considered one of the weaker punctuation marks, so they can’t do things like end sentences or mark where a new sentence has started.
So don’t use them that way. There are no exceptions for this one. You’d be better off spending your time convincing Marvel to release Black Widow merchandise.
Incorrect Example: James Spader was the perfect choice to voice Ultron, he should narrate my life.
Correct Example: James Spader was the perfect choice to voice Ultron. He should narrate my life.
Or: James Spader was the perfect choice to voice Ultron; he should narrate my life.
Or: James Spader was the perfect choice to voice Ultron, and he should narrate my life.
- For a series of three or more words, phrases, or clauses, use commas to separate them.
If you’ve ever heard of the Oxford comma, this is it. This is that moment.
Now, I’m biased. I’ve been in a healthy, committed, and polyamorous relationship with the Oxford comma for years (see what I did there?), along with millions of other writers. And we’re all very happy together. It just makes sense, so when I meet a writer who refuses to use that final comma in a series, I get a little…worried.
Because then, things like this can happen:
Incorrect Example: We invited the strippers, John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin.
Yes, I’m just as surprised as you are that a former President of the United States and the former leader of the Soviet Union were strippers. Draws a whole new meaning out of the Cold War, doesn’t it?
If you want to avoid that awkward appositive moment, make sure you put in that second comma after John F. Kennedy.
Correct Example: We invited the strippers, John. F. Kennedy, and Joseph Stalin.
There. Now our leaders can foster some much needed East-West relations in the company of some very nice and talented ladies. Or men. No judgment.
As a stylistic rule, the Associated Press (AP) style does not use the Oxford comma, and unfortunately, no kicking or screaming on anybody’s part is going to change that. (Other than maybe all of us sending this picture to them, that is.)
If you’re going to write in this style–either by choice or because you’re getting paid to do so–then absolutely follow the house rules AP style sets out for their writers, and commit to it all the way. It pays to be professional, after all.
Make a Decision, Mark!
Whether your name is Mark or not, when it comes to writing, you need to be consistent. If you choose to follow a writing rule or not, commit to your decision throughout your writing. It makes it look like you know what you’re doing, and it’s harder for people to challenge you.
But should they challenge you, make sure you know the rules and can explain why you broke them. It’ll give you the legitimacy you need to fight and keep your writing as is.
Obviously, most writers tend to write their pieces in sessions for days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. Whenever you know you’re going to be writing something long term (a.k.a. over more than one day, honestly), I’d strongly advise you to create a Google Doc that’s a style guide for yourself.
Take note of any special grammar or mechanics rules you use (such as adding hyphens between certain words, always placing commas after introductory phrases, etc.), so you can follow those rules throughout your writing. It’ll save you and your editor time on correcting consistency errors that could be better spent towards developing your writing for its content.
So don’t fear the reaper–I mean, the comma. The little guy isn’t so bad.
It’s just been used, abused, and has an inconsistent work schedule, but a careful writer like you can help fix that.
The Writing Lab, The OWL at Purdue, and Purdue University. Online Writing Lab. https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/.
Pratchett, Terry. Mort: A Novel of Discworld®, 55-56. New York: Harper, 2013.