It's a new year, so I'm inaugurating a new round of blog posting. I'll start by posting some of the helpful writing tips I wrote for the now defunct Suite 101 site a few years ago. First up: the handy but not-so-dandy comma.
The comma: the
most used piece of punctuation in the English language but also the most
Students of writing are often told
by well-meaning teachers to put a comma in a sentence wherever they would pause while speaking the sentence. However, this is not very useful advice. Pausing may
depend on the individual writer’s preference, and it may also vary from
oral communication to written speech.
For example, in the sentence
to use commas the proper way can only enhance a student’s skills in writing and
some speakers may pause after the word “way.” Others may pause after “writing.” Either way is fine; however, no commas are needed in the
Learning a few simple rules can help students and even more
experienced writers communicate more effectively and avoid embarrassing
mistakes. We'll start off with the admittedly arbitrary Rule No. 1: Using commas with clauses.
A clause is an arrangement of words that
conveys an idea. For example, “to go to the store” conveys an idea, although it is not complete. An independent clause contains a complete
thought than can be expressed as a sentence: “John went to the store.”
A sentence, by the way, needs two elements: a subject and a
verb. The shortest verse in the
Bible—“Jesus wept.”—has both elements and so it is a complete sentence.
On the other hand, a dependent clause needs something to
complete it. If we stick
the word “After” in front of “John went to the store,” we need another
clause—an independent one—to complete the thought:
John went to the store, he made dinner.
Joining Independent Clauses
Use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to join two independent clauses:
went to the store, and he bought milk.
conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet and so--FANBOYS, mnemonically) is a short word that clarifies the relationship between elements of
a sentence. It helps writers avoid a common error known as a comma splice:
went the the store, he bought milk.
If two clauses can stand alone, they should not be joined together with only a comma. This is just one of those English-language rules that writers have come to accept as true. If you violate this rule--even intentionally--you will look as if you don't know the difference. (And, let's be honest: Don't you feel like your ready to stop the sentence after "store"?)
Notice that you could also put a period or a semicolon in place of the comma, and either would work just fine.
When to Leave Out the Comma
Suppose we want to shorten the sentence:
went to the store and bought milk.
Notice that the comma is removed because the phrase “bought
milk” cannot stand on its own.
Are commas needed in the following sentences? (Answers appear at the end of the article.)
went to the store and Mary made dinner.
Lincoln was the sixteenth president and was assassinated.
Washington was the first president but he never lived in the White House.
d. John Adams came in second in the election so
he became the first vice president.
e. Adams later
became president but served only one term.
Commas help clarify relationships between the elements of a
sentence and sometimes (but not always) provide a necessary pause. Knowing when to use a comma—to
separate independent clauses, for example—can save you time and
embarrassment. (Answer: commas are
needed in sentences a, c, and d.)