Quick guide to commas
This guide is for you if:
- you want to up the professionalism in your writing
- you want to know set rules for how to use commas
- you just want to know more about grammatical rules.
I’m sure you’ve heard the age-old rule that you should use a comma wherever you would pause (we discuss this and other writing myths in our next blog post). This rule is unreliable, so it’s better to follow set rules when deciding where to insert a comma. Since our use of commas is subject to so many rules, though, we decided they needed a post of their own. Here are seven rules for how you should use commas.
@@Want to learn how to use commas? Read this post@@
AFTER AN INTRODUCTORY PHRASE
Use a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause, regardless of whether it’s a small, medium, or large one.
Small: However, the cruise was interesting and worth the money.
Medium: And I might add, the rooms were well cleaned and spacious.
Large: As far as I am concerned, everyone should go on a cruise at least once in their life.
BEFORE FANBOYS THAT JOIN INDEPENDENT CLAUSES
Use a comma before FANBOYS conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) that join two independent clauses (two complete thoughts).
I would definitely see Titanic again, but I think Leonardo Dicaprio is overrated as an actor.
Note: A comma is not used before and if the conjunction is only joining two verbs (and not two independent clauses). That’s because the second clause isn’t a complete thought.
Jack took cooking lessons for weeks and is now working in a restaurant.
BETWEEN ITEMS IN A LIST
Use commas between items in a list. In short sentences, the last comma before the conjunction is optional as the meaning isn’t difficult to grasp. This comma, called the serial or Oxford comma, is normally a style choice—if you’re writing for an organisation, make sure you check what their style guide dictates. If you’re writing for yourself, make sure you have this in your style guide. (Don’t have a style guide? We can help!) In long sentences, a comma should be used so that the list isn’t confusing.
Short list: I bought apples, oranges, bananas and grapes.
Or, with the comma: I bought apples, oranges, bananas, and grapes.
Long list: I could never decide if I liked cats that slept all day, cats that were playful and energetic, or cats that just sat on your lap and purred.
If you can’t decipher whether the last two items in a list are attached or separate, then you should use a serial comma.
You should also use a comma if the meaning is unclear. One of the most famous examples of this is below.
We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
AROUND NON-ESSENTIAL INFORMATION
Use a comma pair (that is, two commas) when inserting information that is not necessary to the sentence.
The plane, however, will be delayed for another hour.
The book that you wrote, if you don’t mind me saying, was enthralling.
Ms Potter, who bought a kitten last week, couldn’t attend the function.
To check if the commas are necessary, try removing whatever is between the commas from the sentence. If the sentence still makes sense, then you’ll know the commas are in the right spot.
BEFORE DIRECT QUOTATIONS
This one is simple and, hopefully, should be easy to remember: Use a comma after the word that introduces a direct quotation.
Bobby said, ‘Can we visit Grandma today?’
BETWEEN COORDINATE ADJECTIVES
Strings of adjectives (words that describe something) can sometimes be confusing if commas are not used properly. The two types of adjectives that you will find in this instance are coordinate adjectives and cumulative adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are the type that need commas between them.
Coordinate adjectives each separately modify the noun that follows them.
Tall, sturdy tree.
Both tall and sturdy are describing the tree. The sentence would still make sense if the adjectives were rearranged.
Sturdy, tall tree.
The sentence would also make sense if the comma was replaced with and.
Tall and sturdy tree.
A cumulative adjective, on the other hand, is the adjective right before a noun that pairs up with the noun, and is then modified by other adjectives. This type of adjective string doesn’t need a comma.
It was an excellent spicy curry.
Here, excellent is modifying spicy curry. Unlike coordinate adjectives, you can’t rearrange the adjectives in this example as spicy excellent curry doesn’t mean the same thing and doesn’t make sense.
So, the basic rule is that if you can rearrange the adjectives or add and between the adjectives, then you need a comma.
All of this is a lot to remember, but once you understand these set rules, you will be able to see how conquering the rules of commas can improve your writing.
Has this quick guide helped you to understand commas better? Let us know in the comments.
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