The Secret to Using Commas Correctly

Grammar, in so many ways, is like the seasoning in a soup. A dash of salt and a pinch of pepper and the soup tastes amazing—too much though, and you get an uneatable mess. Too little and you get a bland broth.

In order to be a good cook, you need to know your herbs and spices. Well in order to be a good writer, you need to be willing to learn about grammar.

The right punctuation in the right places spices up your novel; it can change your pacing and make your reader slow down to savor every drop or rush along, anxious to find out what happens next. Commas are likely the second most popular punctuation mark (after the period) so it's essential to get them right.

A Common Comma Mishap

Most people know that commas are used when writing a list. (For example: I need to buy milk, cheese, chocolate and eggs at the store today.) But beyond that the rules become complicated—Perhaps the most common mistake is the comma splice, explained here by Grammar Girl, where authors use a comma to combine two sentences into one. For example they might write:

Bob brought Fido to Petco, Fido pulled him up and down the aisles. (wrong) 

Really, "Bob brought Fido to Petco" and "Fido pulled him up and down the aisles" are each a complete sentence on their own. Therefore if an author wants to link the two ideas they will have to use a connecting word like "and" or "but."

Bob brought Fido to Petco, and Fido pulled him up and down the aisles. 

Another example:

Bob and Tina went to the diner, it wasn't a date. (wrong)

Bob and Tina went to the diner, but it wasn't a date. (right) 

Bob and Tina went to the diner. It wasn't a date. (right)

Which of the correct sentences an author chooses is mostly a matter of style. A comma represents a pause in the reader's mind, whereas a period creates a full stop. The short choppy sentences in the 2nd correct option give a different feel than the first, where the flow from one sentence to the next is less dramatic.

The Fake Comma Rule

It's easy to understand why this is such a common problem.

Typically a comma is used to add additional information into a sentence that would not be a complete sentence on its own—or, if forced into a sentence, it would be extremely repetitive in context.

For example, you could write:

Marth took a bow. She kept her arms at her sides. 

Or, using a comma, you could instead say:

Martha took a bow, her arms at her sides. 

If you were to cross off "her arms at her sides" you still have a complete sentence, but "her arms at her sides is not a complete sentence, as is, on its own.

Another example would be my sentence above.

Or, using a comma, you could instead say: 

It still would have been grammatically correct if I had written "Or you could say:" but including "using a comma" gives you additional information about that sentence.

The comma(s) separate out an incomplete clause. Basically, if you could remove the part of the sentence separated out by the comma(s) and still have a complete sentence, the commas are correct (that's a slight over simplification but it's typically true)—UNLESS (and here's where so many people go wrong) the part separated by the comma(s) is a complete sentence in its own right. Then you need to use a linking word, a semicolon or a period.

What's your biggest grammatical struggle? Do you find yourself removing exclamation points? Or perhaps you confuse pronouns? Share them in the comments and I'll write about them in upcoming posts!

Profile image for Melissa Breau

My name is Melissa Breau & I’m a Raleigh-based tea-drinker and dog aficionado. If you’re local, let me know—I’d love to grab a drink.

By day, I’m a keyboard junkie, and (shameless plug) craft killer marketing content for small business owners far and wide.

By night (and sometimes on the weekend) I help out at several nonprofits, teach my dog new tricks, and try to spend as much time outside in the sunshine as I can.

Before joining the world of marketing I spent several years at various publishing companies in NYC, including both magazine publishers and book publishers. I also earned my Masters in Publishing from Pace University.

Want to chat? Find me on twitter or drop me a line via my website.

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