OK. First things, first: I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!
I know it’s been a while since I last wrote, and I can’t apologize enough. Life got in the way, and…well, that’s just it. But I promise to make it up to you! And I’ll start here: why commas are important and 10 ways to use them.
So let me start off by telling you about a local Ohio woman facing car problems. A woman living in West Jefferson had been convicted in municipal court for leaving her truck on the street for more than 24 hours. Her ticket violation read that “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” was prohibited from daylong parking. This woman, with her keen eye for detail, claimed that her truck was not a “motor vehicle camper.” And had a comma been inserted where it should’ve been, then her motor vehicle would’ve been covered under the law. While the issuing officers argued that the meaning of the violation was well-understood, the court sided with the truck owner in the end. It’s quite an interesting story! Get more details here.
The point? Commas DO matter. Punctuation, in general, can make all the difference. I’m hoping my intro was interesting enough to make you care about where you place your commas. If not, then you’re really going to hate this next part.
Rule 1: separate independent clauses that are joined by coordinating conjunctions, such as “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” “nor,” “so“ or “yet.”
Example: The girl forgot her laptop, so she wrote her essay.
Independent clauses are clauses that can stand alone as its own sentence. Two complete sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction take a comma.
Rule 2: introduce or end a quote with a comma.
Example: The girl said, “I forgot my laptop.”
The comma goes BEFORE the quotation mark when introducing a quote.
Example 2: “I forgot my laptop,” the girl said.
When the quote comes at the beginning of a sentence, the comma goes inside of the last quotation mark.
Rule 3: use a comma to set off adjective phrases that directly modify or describe a noun.
Example: Forgetting her laptop, the girl wrote her essay.
The phrase, “forgetting her laptop”, describes “the girl”. Adjective phrases are normally called participial phrases. The participial phrase, “forgetting her laptop”, tells which girl we are referring to.
Rule 4: separate two or more adjectives of equal status that describe the same noun.
Example: The girl forgot her stickered, gray laptop.
The terms “stickered” and “gray” both equally describe the laptop. These adjectives are known as coordinate adjectives because neither adjective is subordinate or inferior to the other. Two quick ways to check if your adjectives are coordinate: 1) does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are reversed? and 2) does the sentence make sense if the adjectives have the word “and” between them?
Rule 5: use a pair of commas to set off phrases that are not essential to a sentence’s meaning. On the other hand, do NOT use commas to set off phrases that ARE essential to the sentence’s meaning.
Example: That girl, who happens to sit behind me in class, forgot her laptop.
The phrase, “who happens to sit behind me in class”, is extra information. It’s not essential to understanding the sentence’s meaning. If you can take a phrase out of a sentence, and the sentence still makes sense, then set off that phrase with a pair of commas.
Example 2: The girl who forgot her laptop is writing her essay.
Here, a comma isn’t needed because the phrase, “who forgot her laptop”, is essential to the sentence’s meaning. This phrase tells us why the girl is writing her essay instead of typing it.
Rule 6: separate introductory clauses or phrases from the main/independent clause.
Example: Because the girl forgot her laptop, she wrote her essay.
The clause, “because the girl forgot her laptop”, introduces the main or independent clause, “she wrote her essay”. Remember: independent clauses can stand alone as a sentence. Introductory clauses or dependent clauses CANNOT stand alone.
Rule 7: separate three or more words/phrases in a series.
Example: The girl forgot her laptop, laptop charger, and laptop bag.
Whenever you list three or more items in a series, each item takes a comma after it.
*FOR MY ADVANCED READERS: Have you heard of the Oxford Comma? The Oxford Comma is the last comma in a series (the comma you use right before “and”). There has been a lot of debate over whether the Oxford Comma should still be a thing or not. In my case, I’m a PR professional and the Oxford Comma is forbidden in our AP Stylebook. However, for the sake of avoiding more confusion, my examples are written in Standard English.
Rule 8: use a comma near the end of a sentence to imply a pause or shift in tone.
Example: The girl forgot her laptop, as usual.
The phrase, “as usual”, creates a shift in tone, making the reader feel differently towards the girl now that it’s known that she “usually” forgets her laptop. This rule also works well in blogging or other informal writing. As you might have noticed, I use many fragments and commas in my posts. This helps create those shifts and/or establish a more conversational tone.
Rule 9: use commas for dates (that include the year), addresses, geographical places and titles in names.
Example: The girl forgot her laptop in her hometown, Lewisville, TX.
Example 2: The girl forgot her laptop on March 20, 2016.
Example: John Doe, M.D., teaches that girl’s class.
Rule 10: use commas when speaking directly to someone or if two names are right beside one another.
Example: Jane, why did you forget your laptop?
Example 2: To Mary, Jane had always been forgetful.
Commas help prevent confusion.
And there you have it! The most technical, punctuation-filled post I’ve ever written on this blog. And honestly, there are so many more unspoken rules for commas, it’s crazy. However, I think if I drag on anymore, you might never forgive me. So I’ll stop here. But there are plenty of online sites and blogs you can check out for more information (such as Purdue OWL, Copyblogger, Grammarly and many more). And if you have any other rules you’d like to share, please add them in the comment section below!
Thanks for reading! 🙂