Friday, May 04, 2012

To Comma, or not to Comma? That is the Question

Webster defines a comma as a punctuation mark, used especially as a mark of separation within a sentence. Doesn’t that definition just clear it all up for you? If so, you’re lucky because it never did for me. Back to my Writer’s Bible, “The Elements of Style”.

Here’s the skinny; there are seven comma rules. We’ll take them out of order for simplicity.

1 – Dates are written as;

• Jan. 24, 2006.
• 24 Jan. 2006.
In the second example no comma is used.

2 – In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, the commas are placed as follows;

• I enjoy tennis, skiing, and books.
• Jason, Fred, and Esther went to the farm.

You can’t drop the last comma. I don’t know, maybe the Punctuation Police force you to repeat English 101 for eternity if you do.

The exception is if you’re writing a business name. The last comma is omitted.

• Jefferson, Clemmons, Blake and Company

3 – Use a comma before and/or after a proper name or place;

• “Hi, John.”
• “Hey, John, did you see the dog?”
• Munich, Germany

4 - A comma is inserted before a conjunction introducing an independent clause;

• She was in a situation which should have scared the hell out of her, but didn’t.
• In no time the airplane landed, and the passengers clapped with joy.

5 – Don’t use a comma to join independent clauses. If the clauses are grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, it’s the semicolon’s time to come out and play.

• It is nearly half past five; we cannot reach town before dark.

6 – Don’t break sentences in two. Meaning, don’t use periods when you should use a comma. “The Elements of Style” have the best examples;

• I met them on a Cunard liner many years ago. Coming home from Liverpool.
• She was an interesting talker. A woman who had traveled all over the world and lived in half a dozen countries.

The sentences don’t make sense as written. In both examples a comma should replace the first period.

If you want more dramatic effect in your sentence do the following;

• He yanked the cell phone from his pocket and punched in the number. The phone rang. No one answered.

Don’t use the above example often in your story, it has a choppy effect and the editor won’t like it, let alone the reader. Clipped sentences, as the above example, are more often used in dialogue.

7 – Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. A parenthetic expression is a word, phrase, or sentence inserted in a passage to explain or modify the thought. Again from “The Elements of Style”;

• The best way to see the country, unless you are pressed for time, is to travel on foot.

In a nutshell here’s how it works for the author;

• The eight rules are standard and must be followed so you look like a professional writer.
• My guru Beth Anderson taught me to listen to the flow of the words. Use the commas when you need the reader to pause and give them a little time to prepare for what’s next.
• Use common sense. As you apply the rules they will become second nature.

Have a terrific weekend. I'll be back Monday with Cornell DeVille, author of chilling young adult books. Be sure to stop in. Until then...

Happy Writing!

Sloane Taylor


  1. I'm so happy to have you do a basic reminder article. It seems all the "rules" I learned when young have always stuck...much to the chagrin of some of the writers of books I review...

    Seriously, why NOT learn all this when you want to be a writer? Oh, and by the way, in your example for drama...if you don't mind...

    Please drop the "e" on rang...this is a good example where a spell check will NOT work, since the word range is accepted! Another whole issue!

    Thanks for a great learning article!


    1. Hi Glenda,

      THANK YOU for the "e" advice, and I don't mind at all. Damn spell check.:)

      People have a misconception writing is easy and they don't need to learn the basics. Serious mistake.

  2. Great post, but why did you write about a Boy George song? You know - comma, comma, comma, comma, comma, Commelian! Smirk.

    1. Everyone loves a smart a**. LOL. Glad you like the post, Sharon.:)

  3. Of course, we might do things differently on the other side of the pond!

    1. Are you serious or teasing me, Derek? If serious - how so?

  4. And if you're British, it gets even more interesting because we spell and punctuate differently, which makes writing with publishers a sometimes confusing experience...and occasionally funny. LOL

    1. Sharon, I know about the spelling, but the punctuation throws me. How is it different?

  5. Anonymous10:01 AM

    Great reminder!! Was it me or were there only 7 listed...I feel cheated...LOL!!! Love your Blog

    1. Thanks, Cindi! Yes, only seven, but don't feel cheated. There's always more to come.:)

  6. Commas and synopsis I hate them both. Thank you so much for the blog post. I'll pull out my Elements of Style and put in on my desk. But your blog gives the basics.

    1. Hey, Yasmine! Basics are best and easier to understand. Now get over you hatred and get to writing.:)

  7. I agree that British 'rules' are different! When I was at school (a long time ago admittedly!) we were taught not to use a comma before a conjunction. Now, of course, we have the 'serial' comma, as well as commas between independent clauses. With the latter, however, it seems that you don't need the comma if the subject of both clauses is the same. Life gets very complicated at times!

  8. Absolutely, Paula! Thanks for the explanation.

  9. I am so grateful for editors who accept my age, and my forgetting of grammar, learned so long ago. ( uk)
    This is a great post, thank you!

    1. Raven, we do NOT want to discuss age.:) Glad you like the post and thank you for stopping by.