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  • Writer's pictureBeth Linton

Punctuation Made Easy - Commas

If you have ever spent ten minutes agonising over where to add or remove a comma in a sentence then this blog might speed up that painful process. Simply put, punctuation matters. Just ask Grandma (see below)… In this piece I run through comma rules and try and make them clear and easy for writers to apply.

As ever, if you spot errors in my work be kind!

Ask Grandma...

Comma Rule 1

We use commas to separate items in a list.

The rule in use:

English, United Kingdom - When we go on holiday we always take sunscreen, plasters, Calpol, safety pins and a pack of cards.

American English - When we go on holiday we always take sunscreen, plasters, Calpol, safety pins, and a pack of cards.

The Oxford comma. This is one of the cases where American usage is different to that in the UK. The Oxford comma is used in American English (a comma before the and in a list) but in the UK it is normal to omit a comma from the last item.

Of course, if you are British (like me) and are writing for an American or Canadian publisher that (again, like me) then you will need to retrain your brain and employ the Oxford comma.

Comma Rule 2

We use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

The rule at work:

  1. The best place to take a holiday is Los Angeles, but the best place to take a honeymoon is Hawaii.

  2. This sentence is made up of two independent clauses. The sentence could have been written as two separate sentences:

  3. The best place to take a holiday is Los Angeles. The best place to take a honeymoon is Hawaii.

  4. However, the word ‘but’ is used to link the two clauses. We place a comma before this coordinating conjunction.

Comma Rule 3

We use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

The rule at work:

A reminder, so far we have looked at commas that list and separate clauses.

Comma Rule 4

We use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause, and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

This rule applies to separate parenthetical expressions/phrases such as: however, of course, on the other hand, in fact, for example.

The rule at work:

Clause: Next Friday, which happens to be my birthday, is the only day when I am available to meet you.

Phrase: The restaurant has an exciting atmosphere. The food, on the other hand, is rather bland.

Word: I appreciate your hard work. In this case, however, you seem to have over-exerted yourself.

Comma Rule 5

We use a comma before a word or phrase that comes at the end of a sentence indicating a distinct pause or shift.

This rule includes a short clause at the end of the sentence that is used to change a statement into a question or an exclamatory sentence.

The rule at work:

That should make them take notice, shouldn't it?

Comma Rule 6

We use commas to set off all geographical names, numbers of more than four digits, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

When you use just the month and the year, no comma is necessary after the month or year: "The average temperatures for July 1998 are the highest on record for that month."

The Rule at work:

July 4, 1776, was an important day in American history. I was born on Sunday, May 12, 1968.

  • There are some really clear examples of comma use and numbers at this site.

Important note:

A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. It is a frequent mistake. If two clauses make sense on their own then connecting them with a comma is incorrect.

If you have two independent clauses that need to be separated, you have several choices:

You can make them into two sentences using a full stop. This is probably the easiest solution but may not be the best in terms of style or developing your argument.

You can use a semicolon (;). Semicolons should not be overused but can be very powerful when used in the correct situations. A semicolon suggests a link between the two clauses without stating that link specifically. This can be a powerful tool in developing a convincing argument.

You can introduce a conjunction (because, as etc.) to connect the sentences. By doing this, you make the connection between the two more explicit.

A comma splice or comma fault is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses.

  1. Jim usually gets on with everybody. He is an understanding person.

  2. Jim usually gets on with everybody; he is an understanding person.

  3. Jim usually gets on with everybody because he is an understanding person.

  4. Jim usually gets on with everybody, as he is an understanding person.

  5. Jim usually gets on with everybody, he is an understanding person.

Only the last sentence is grammatically incorrect here as it has a comma splice.

  • If you’d like further examples of these comma rules at work you can find them here

If this blog has been helpful to you, why not read this one paragraphing in fiction?

Or, is your next area of focus Point of View? Have a look at my blog: An Author's Guide to Point of View

Good luck with your writing!


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