Punctuation! On the Use of Commas

While punctuation may form just a small percentage of a work’s overall character count, the use of it can make or break its readability. Punctuation is the vehicle for indicating to your reader how your sentences should be read, which can result in wildly different meanings. Let’s look at a few examples.

 

Ah, the mighty comma. There are many, many rules for comma use, but in general there is one governing law I follow in my editing. Read the sentence out loud to yourself. Did you pause at any point? Change the inflection of your voice? Then you probably need a comma! (Do I sit at the table in my workspace mumbling to myself? You bet I do.) These commas are often referred to as vocative commas, or commas that exist to make sentences more readable. After many years of English classes and repeated Google searches, I have learned there are pretty much no definite rules for this type of comma use. If you think your syntax would benefit from one, add it!

 

Of course, there are many other reasons to include a comma, all of which are subject to defined rules. Placement of a comma within your sentence can drastically alter its meaning. Consider the famous example:

Let’s eat, Grandma!

vs.

Let’s eat Grandma!

The first sentence sounds like a pleasant invitation for your grandmother to join you at the luncheon table. The second, on the other hand, is rather more vicious.

 

If you join together more than one independent clause within a single sentence, use a comma.

We went down to the dock, but we couldn’t find your boat.

Note how the two haves of the sentence on their own each constitute full thoughts, and could be written individually as smaller sentences. (As a brief note, this is why you often need a comma before the word ‘but’.)

 

If a piece of your sentence is kinda hanging out on its own, and you need to make it feel like it belongs with the other words in the sentence, gently introduce the sections with some commas. (The awkward, antisocial fragments are indicated in bold.)

While we were on deck, the wind was tearing at our hair and whistling in our ears.

The galley was so filthy, I think, because no one has cleaned it in a long time.

That marina is beautiful, too.

Why are you so salty, Captain?

 

Alright, time to include lists on this list. If you list more than two things, you probably need commas.

My hobbies include sailing, reading, and writing.

Even if you’re listing adjectives, you still need them! If you can rearrange the order of the adjectives in front of your noun without things sounding awkward, they are considered to be listed. In this case, two things are enough to warrant comma usage.

The large, blue boat crested over the oncoming wave.

The large, blue cruising boat crested over the oncoming wave.

See how there is no comma between ‘blue’ and ‘cruising’ in that last example? That is because ‘cruising’ applies to ‘boat’ in a different way than ‘blue’ does. The easy trick for this is just to say the reverse order out loud. If it sounds strange, you don’t need a comma between them.

This, of course, brings up the matter of the Oxford comma. I know, I know, I once hated them, too. But I have come around. The Oxford comma is the comma that comes before the ‘and’ that separates the last two things in a list.

My hobbies include sailing, reading, and writing.

That second, bolded comma is the Oxford one. While many people argue that they seem extraneous and silly, they can actually vastly improve readability, especially when you want to list actions taken by a character.

The deckhand leapt onto the deck, seized the life raft, threw it overboard and waved his arms.

vs

The deckhand leapt onto the deck, seized the life raft, threw it overboard, and waved his arms.

The first sentence makes it sound as if the deckhand is waving his arms around while also trying to throw the life raft. This is a level of multitasking that I would not recommend to anyone.

 

Of course, there are several other reasons you might need to use a comma. The ones I have included above are the types I most often run into when editing, so take note and comma wisely!

 

I would be remiss if I did not include a brief warning to those of us who might get comma-happy (as an English teacher from my youth, Mr. Evans, so often ranted and raved about). Do not pepper them in so often that things get jittery. If you think, that you sound nervous, when reading your sentence, it might be, because, you’ve gone overboard.