Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, and sharing the things I learn along the way. Enjoy.
The comma is the bane of my existence. That pesky little punctuation mark causes me so much trouble. That’s one of the reasons I am giving it its own space. I need to hammer this information into my head as much as I want to share it with you.
So let’s dive in, shall we?
Commas are tricky because there are about a hundred different ways to use them.
Let’s try and start off with the simple stuff.
A comma separates two main clauses that are connected by a coordinating conjunction (aka the FANBOYS):
F = for
A = and
N = nor
B = but
O = or
Y = yet
S = so
Basically taking two sentences or ideas and connecting them.
My daughter wouldn't eat her veggies, so I finished the broccoli for her.
Sounds easy enough. If the two sentences are complete, you can use a comma to mash them together.
If the two sentences are not complete then no comma would be necessary.
The vegetables were hot and delicious.
See, no comma before the “and” because what comes after is not a complete sentence. Got it?
Don't be tempted to use a comma to splice a sentence without that coordination conjunction. That's a no-no.
My daughter wouldn't eat her veggies, I finished the broccoli for her.
See how that looks without the "so."
If you're going to squish your sentences, remember the FANBOYS.
Ok, on to the next…
The serial Comma.
This one is a bit of a wishy-washy rule and it is really up to the editor on what the end result will be. But you’re probably thinking, what the heck are you talking about.
The serial comma is the comma used in lists. Back to an earlier example I used.
I enjoy the variety of dishes at Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pie.
See all the commas separating the dishes? The last one before the conjunction is the serial comma. The question is, do you place a comma before that last “and,” “but,” or “or?”
Many editors will suggest you leave the serial comma out unless its omission will cause confusion. Honestly though, it really doesn’t hurt to leave it in.
Let’s look at an example with it.
I love making Christmas cookies: sugar, peanut butter and chocolate chip and oatmeal.
With the serial comma missing you cannot tell if we are talking about peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies as well as oatmeal, or peanut butter cookies and chocolate chip and oatmeal.
Here it is again.
I love making Christmas cookies: sugar, peanut butter and chocolate chip, and oatmeal.
I love making Christmas cookies: sugar, peanut butter, and chocolate chip and oatmeal.
You see how that pesky little comma can change the meaning? The safest bet is to ALWAYS use it and let your editor tell you if it needs to be moved.
I bet you think were done looking at the comma, aren't you? Nope!
Commas used in place of parenthesis.
Often times we want to add an aside to our sentence, for further clarification, and in this case a parenthesis is perfect. But a comma can also take its place. Did you catch the nifty example I just gave you?
Commas don't interrupt your sentence. They don't make you stop and think, so you can use them when the words you're enclosing are a natural part of the sentence. But please don't use them if your comment is out in left field. Parenthesis are better for that purpose.
Commas between Coordinate Adjectives
Commas are used occasionally between coordinating adjectives.
The city had several long, narrow, dark streets.
Notice all of the commas there?
Quick tip: Think of those commas as the word "and." If you can substitute the comma for the word and, as well as mix up the adjectives, then use that comma!
The city had several long and narrow and dark streets.
You could also say...
The city had several narrow and long and dark streets.
The order of the adjectives does not change the meaning of the sentence.
Now look at this sentence.
We had our picnic on a bright, warm spring day.
If you were to mix up the adjectives, the sentence would sound weird.
We had our picnic on a warm and bright and spring day.
Warm and bright can be swapped with little confusion but the “and” before spring makes no sense.
We had our picnic on a warm and bright spring day.
See? So use this to determine comma placement in your coordinating adjectives from now on.
Commas after Introductory Words
You've seen me start sentences with the word, however. That is considered an introductory word.
Accordingly, consequently, yes, no, however, therefore, otherwise, etc...
Introductory words can come either at the beginning of a sentence or somewhere in the middle as part of an independent clause within a sentence. They essentially introduce the next point.
No, I have not seen the report; however, I would like to obtain a copy of it.
There are two introductory words here: one at the start of the sentence and one in the middle.
Notice the comma after each.
Commas also come after introductory phrases. Remember the post on participle phrases? There was always a comma.
While running through the forest, I spotted a deer.
"While running through the forest," introduces the action.
The same applies to infinitive phrases. (An infinitive will almost always begin with “to” followed by the simple form of the verb.)
To get there on time, we'll need to leave at 8:30.
"To get there on time" is the infinitive phrase.
The comma ALWAYS goes after the infinitive or participle phrase.
Commas with Names in Direct Address
Use commas to set off the name or title of a person being spoken to directly.
I told you George, I don’t want to go out tonight.
Marsha, do you have to be such a prude?
I very much appreciate your many helpful suggestions, Professor.
OK those are the most common uses of the comma. There are more, but these are the big ones to worry about.
For a good quick reference, check here.