Thursday, 23 February 2017
Commas are handy little things, but they can also trip up our writing if used incorrectly. I tend to look at punctuation as traffic signals: a period is like a red light (in fact in Britain they refer to it as a ‘full stop’), whereas a comma is like a ‘yield sign,’ which should prompt the reader to pause slightly. With these two basic ideas in mind and by reading your writing aloud, your inner-ear will probably pick up most of the places where a comma is (or is not) warranted.
But for those who would like the more concrete rules of comma usage, I offer the following, along with a way to perhaps remember these comma rules.
Remember: Commas LIES. Now, before you begin pelting me with wads of paper, each direct hit pointing to my recent subject/verb disagreement, realize that LIES is an acronym –and a pretty handy one at that. If you remember the phrase, “commas LIES,” it will help you remember the basic usages of the comma:
Lists: She went to the store and bought bread, ice-cream, milk, eggs, and soda. Some might argue that there doesn’t need to be a comma after the last item in the list.There’s no set agreement on that, although it is considered a bit more formal. If you want to get a fight going amongst a group of grammar nerds, just innocently throw out that little nugget of argument: “Excuse me, but should the last item of a list have a comma after it?” Then step back and watch the sparks fly. When in doubt, ask your editor, your professor, your confessor and go with what they suggest. Or simply go with what feels right for your particular writing.
Introductions: Unfortunately, commas can often be a pain to use in our writing. In this instance, the beginning word “unfortunately” acts as an introduction to the rest of the sentence and also sets the tone for the information within the sentence. The example could just have easily read “Fortunately, commas help guide our readers through our writing.
Extra Information: The nice thing about comma use is, when used correctly, they can aide in putting extra information within the sentence. Not only will the extra information be of use to your reader, it will allow you to vary your sentence structure, so as not to develop a tired, overly-consistent sentence rhythm.
Side-by-side sentences: The last point in our acronym of commas can be a bit deceiving. Yes, you can use a comma to join side-by-side sentences, however, you must have a coordinating conjunction to work with the comma. Coordinating conjunctions include but, or, and, so, and many others. Without the coordinating conjunction, you have a comma-splice, which is a form of sentence run-on and one of the Cardinal sins of writing.
Correct: We went down to the bowling alley, but it was closed for repairs.
Incorrect: We went down to the bowling alley, it was closed for repairs.
Remember: You can NEVER fix a run on sentence by simply inserting a comma. The comma MUST include a coordinating conjunction. Without the coordinating conjunction, all you’ve done is simply replace a run-on sentence with a comma-splice –both of which are major writing no-no’s.
Commas and quotation marks: Without going into all the rules of quotation marks (hey, I have to save some material for another article), let’s just say that LIES are sometime different when quotation marks are involved. Generally speaking, commas go outside the first set of quotation marks and inside the last set of quotation marks.
She looked up at him and said, “I will never marry you in a million years. Not until you figure out how to use commas.”
“I will never marry you in a million years,” she said, looking up at him. “Not until you figure out how to use commas.”
As you can see, there can be a lot riding on the correct use of commas. As always, read your writing aloud. Your inner-ear will often pick up what your eyes skim over. Better still, give your writing to someone and have them read it aloud to you. If your reader stumbles over a part of the writing, then there’s generally a problem that needs to be addressed.
Best of luck, and keep your keyboard clacking.