Subtitle: Achieving Comma Karma
In part one of this post, I listed some of the most common uses of the comma, in their grammatical context. Here, I’ll show more obscure instances where commas are needed, as well as the common list-type instances that we sometimes forget.
Commas in a Series
Most people know to separate three or more words or phrases in a sentence with commas. However, they get hung on whether the final comma is required or not. Here is an example:
- His ex-wife was lovely, crazy, and alone.
- His ex-wife was lovely, crazy and alone.
Which is correct? The answer: both are correct. The so-called Oxford comma is that last one that preceded the coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor). It’s common to omit the Oxford comma in business writing; in fact, it actually tends to be an editorial decision whether to use it. The only requirement is that you must be consistent. If you include it, include it in all instances in the work. Personally, I prefer to see it, but I’m a comma gangsta.
Names, Dates, Addresses
This one hopefully everyone gets. Commas should separate geographical names (City, Province, State, Country), dates when in the format MMMM DD, YYYY, and titles (Schmeckly Schmucker, PhD). There is also a comma following each of these to separate them from the rest of the sentence.
Quotations are separated by commas – before the quote, if applicable, or after, if the sentence normally ends in a period.
- Tammy whispered, “You are a schmuck, Schmeckly Schmucker.”
- “And yet I make more money than you,” he answered.
- “I hate you,” she said, “and always have.”
There are a few more cases in which commas are required. If this is starting to feel overwhelming, fear not; with practice, you will quickly get so it is almost intuitive.
Use in phrases that show contrasts, or to indicate a pause. As in other instances, the purpose of the comma is to show that one element of the sentence is distinct from the remainder, either via contrasting ideas, or to add emphasis. Here are some examples:
- She was a gossip, though not malicious.
- Cathy dressed simply, even demurely.
- Yonder lies the castle of my father, the prince.
Free modifiers, phrases that modify a noun and can be placed anywhere in a sentence, are separated with commas. Here, the key is that the phrase is “free” to roam in the sentence without causing confusion.
- Beth rode the bus, screaming insanely. (As it’s clear the bus wasn’t screaming, this is a free modifier, requiring a comma.)
- Wrong: Beth joined Mary on the bus, screaming. (Either Beth, Mary, or both could be screaming. Therefore, the sentence needs to be re-written.)
- Corrected: Beth, who was screaming, joined Mary on the bus.
The last place commas are used, similar to the above, is simply to clarify confusion. Try these examples.
- Michael Jackson is dead! (Mourn the creepy singer.)
- Michael, Jackson is dead! (Mourn some guy named after a President.)
If it doesn’t fit into one of the examples in these two posts, the comma likely does not belong in the sentence. Delete it. If you don’t remember all these rules right away, that’s fine. Good grammar checkers know the rules, and you can always use this as a referral during editing. I find that the time to get commas fixed is during the editing process, not during writing. Why foil the flow for a pause?