by Allie Boniface
Commas can be a writer’s worst enemy. You know you’re supposed to use them (but when? and where?), but just when you learn most of the rules, you discover exceptions.
Well, here’s a quick guide. Commas can be confusing, but if you print this out and refer to it when you’re in a jam, it should help in most cases.
1. Use commas to set off introductory phrases. Many times, the placement of this comma will occur where you would draw a natural breath if reading the sentence aloud.
As soon as Jenny woke up yesterday, she felt sick.
After the horse dragged Cowboy Bob five hundred feet, the animal finally stopped.
Note: Sometimes introductory phrases are short. In those cases, read the sentence aloud and see if a comma would clarify the sentence’s meaning.
Last night Jimmy snuck into my bedroom. (Comma would theoretically go after “night,” but is it needed? Probably not.)
2. Use commas to separate items in a series.
Madeline packed a change of clothes, a toothbrush, and enough money to get across the border.
Note: Placement of the comma before the final “and” has been debated. Some grammar guides will tell you it’s appropriate. Others will tell you it isn’t. My editor recently took out all commas before the “and” in sentences like this. I think it’s a personal prefrence that won’t make or break your manuscript either way.
3. Use commas to set off interrupting phrases. The test is to see whether the interrupting information is essential to understanding the sentence. Can you drop out the interrupting phrase and retain the sentence’s central idea? If yes, put a comma before and after the interrupting phrase. If no, then you cannot use commas.
Sarah, my best friend since first grade, turned out to be the biggest liar I ever met. (The fact that Sarah is the speaker’s best friend might be interesting, but dropping out the phrase between the commas does not change the fact that she turned out to be a liar.)
The girl who was my best friend since first grade turned out to be a liar. (Here, the phrase “who was my best friend since first grade” is essential to the sentence, because if we take it out, the sentence changes to “The girl turned out to be a liar.” Which girl?? Here, commas may not be used, because every word is essential to the sentence’s meaning).
4. Use commas before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, for, nor, so, yet) when joining two complete thoughts in one sentence.
I wanted to visit Hawaii, yet I was afraid to fly. (The groups of words on both sides of the comma could also function as stand-alone sentences. Therefore, put a comma before the conjunction).
Now, be careful…
1. DO NOT use a comma before a coordinating conjunction if it does not separate two complete thoughts.
Dr. Johnson tightened his collar against the wind, and was convinced that the cold would kill him. (The second half of this sentence cannot stand by itself, so you cannot put a comma before “and.”)
2. DO NOT use a comma to separate a subject from its verb.
The baseball player, hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth. (Can’t do it! No reason for it! Don’t even try!!)
3. DO NOT use a comma by itself to join two complete thoughts in a sentence.
The path wound along the edge of the woods, no one dared travel it after dark.
(The groups of words before and after the comma could each stand alone and make sense. Therefore, you CANNOT join them with only a comma. Add a conjunction, change the comma to a semi-colon, or simply use a period to create two sentences.)
Note: If you are author Joyce Carol Oates, consider all of the above null and void, and use the comma with abandon. If you are not JCO, your agent/editor/publisher will be much happier if you submit a manuscript that adheres to the above guidelines.
Visit the author at her website or her blog.