I love commas. I truly believe that they can greatly improve clarity in writing of all kinds, and I cringe at missed commas on a daily basis. While it’s true that commas can be misused, I think many people are so afraid of run-on sentences that they abandon sentence structure altogether. But, honestly, what’s the point of writing if your language has no natural cadence? In the interest of bringing the joy of the comma to all of my readers, I would like to share some advice on comma use that you can employ in essays, in emails, or even in text messages. These tips specifically refer to grammatical situations I seem to encounter all the time. Grab a cup of tea and take notes!
Before a Conjunction that Begins a New Phrase
Consider the following:
I would love to help you but I can’t do it today.
I would love to help you, but I can’t do it today.
Are either of these examples incorrect? Technically, no, but one of them would be much clearer when skimmed through in the body of an email, and that’s the one with the comma. The comma in this case helps suggest a slight pause or breath in the sentence where it may not otherwise be assumed. It’s super helpful when you’re trying to get your point across.
Lists (i.e. Oxford Commas)
I’ve discussed the Oxford Comma before on this blog, but it’s still a point of contention for me. For the uninitiated, the Oxford Comma is the comma between the last two items in a list:
I need to buy peas, lettuce, and pickles.
The commonly-taught rule is that in a short list like the above, you don’t need the red Oxford Comma, but I and others disagree in many cases. For a very clear example to explain why this is the case, check out the graphic in the other post on this topic (click here for that).
I had to look up the name of this particular grammatical construct, but once I explain it, you’ll know what I mean. A sentential adverb is one that modifies the entire sentence, not just a particular noun. In this case, I’m talking about the ones that appear at the beginning of a sentence. For example:
Obviously, I believe commas are fantastic.
“Obviously” is the sentential adverb here. Because it can be removed from the sentence without consequence to its grammatical structure, it needs a comma immediately following it. Otherwise, it may distort or obstruct the meaning of the sentence. An example without a comma is as follows:
However she thinks this sentence is confusing.
The lack of comma here makes it look like the “however” is referring to “she” or to “she thinks”, rather than the sentence as a whole. In fact, it sort of seems like this is a sentence fragment that is trying to describe the manner in which she thinks!
The moral of the story here is that you need that comma.
Asides and Other Partial Statements
My general guiding principle is that if part of a sentence could be removed without destroying the structure of the rest of the sentence, then it should probably have commas around it, where applicable. For example, consider the sentence:
I’m a nerd, to be honest, and that’s okay.
If you remove the middle fragment, the sentence still works:
I’m a nerd and that’s okay.
However, if the piece of the sentence you’re considering could be a standalone sentence itself, then this is not the place for a comma. This calls for a semicolon, or perhaps even a new sentence altogether.
I wasn’t born yesterday, I know a run-on sentence when I see one.
You can fix the above sentence in one of the following three ways:
I wasn’t born yesterday; I know a run-on sentence when I see one.
I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a run-on sentence when I see one.
I wasn’t born yesterday, so I know a run-on sentence when I see one.
The Word “Like”
Yes, I’m talking about the typical “teenage” usage of the word “like”: as a filler word, replacing “um” and “uh”, for instance.
In formal written language, this isn’t really an issue. In texts, it might pop up, but not as often — it simply adds length or emphasis to the sentence, which doesn’t lend itself to the brevity required in a text message. However, the worst offenders for this grammatical misdemeanor are casual Young Adult Fiction writers. For example:
“I was like so excited,” he said.
Ugh, stop. That makes no sense, and it drives me nuts. The word “like” here can be considered an aside, as in the previous example, so the correction would be:
“I was, like, so excited,” he said.
Notice that the commas indicate that the removal of the word “like” would not break the sentence structure. That’s much better.
I would love to get into the nitty gritty of punctuation in dialogue here, but I think this is enough for one post! Let me know if this was helpful, and if you’d like to see more!
What are your best comma tips?
(P.S. Did you get my awful Feature Image joke?)