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Commas

February 22, 2011

For Ali

Among subeditors there is no definitive guide on when/when not to use commas. And it often happens that one sub will put them in only for another sub to take them out again.

A comma, of course, is used to indicate a pause in a sentence, to make that sentence clear and easy to read.

OR

A comma of course is used to indicate a pause in a sentence to make that sentence clear and easy to read.

The sentences above show that the use of commas is often a matter of style.

Mostly.

There are some guidelines:

1. Commas are used to separate a series of words or phrases:

Clare needed to buy grapes, peas and chocolate.

Clare had a sharp mind, a quick wit and a gentle countenance.

In the US, the serial comma is often used, but not in Oz:

Clare needed to buy grapes, peas, and chocolate. (See the comma before ‘and’? That’s a serial comma. We generally do not use it. We may use it for longer sentences to avoid confusion.)

2. Commas are not usually used to separate adjectives:

Tony had big strong hands.

3. Commas are used to separate a subordinate clause from a main clause (parenthetic commas):

Harry wants to invite Isabel, who lives in the same block of flats, to his birthday party.

The main clause is: ‘Harry wants to invite Isabel to his birthday party’

The subclause is: ‘who lives in the same block of flats’

Notice that without commas, the meaning of the sentence can change:

Harry wants to invite Isabel who lives in the same block of flats to his birthday party.

Here, the sentence suggests that Harry knows two or more people by the name of Isabel and the Isabel he wants to invite to the party is the one who lives in his block of flats. The subclause (who lives in the same block of flats) defines the subject (Isabel). In the first example, the subclause simply adds something to the main clause.

In such instances commas are essential to ensure there is no ambiguity. This is especially true when we’re referring to an author, artist or anyone else who has created a body of work.

Tim Winton’s book Dirt Music was shortlisted for a Booker prize.

If you were to put commas around Dirt Music (Tim Winton’s book, Dirt Music, was shortlisted for a Booker prize) it would indicate that Winton had only written one book, which, of course, is not the case.

And when using parenthetic commas, don’t ever put one in and leave the other out:

Helen took the neighbour’s dog, a German Shepherd for a walk.

That’s just wrong.

Helen took the neighbour’s dog, a German Shepherd, for a walk.

Better.

4. You need to use commas if you write out a date like this:

March 10, 1972 (my birthdate!)

But not if you write the date like this:

10 March 1972

You need to use commas if you write the day with the date:

Friday, 10 March 1972 or Friday, March 10, 1972

5. Use a comma after a word or phrase that is addressed to someone or something:

Hurry up, Harry!

Thank you, George.

6. Use a comma before ‘but’, ‘and’, ‘because/as’ if what follows is an independent clause (that is, a clause that can stand by itself. Also known as a simple sentence):

Larry wasn’t sure what he had on the following day, but he knew he would need to visit a doctor at some stage.

Chloe ran to open the door, and was surprised when she saw Fred standing there.

Nathan didn’t want to go with Natasha to see Eat Pray Love, because/as he had a fair idea that he wouldn’t like the film.

Often, the comma is left out and does not affect the clarity of the sentence:

Larry wasn’t sure what he had on the following day but he knew he would need to visit a doctor at some stage.

Chloe ran to open the door and was surprised when she saw Fred standing there.

Nathan didn’t want to go with Natasha to see Eat Pray Love because/as he had a fair idea he wouldn’t like the film.

Which do you prefer?

6. Use a comma with words or phrases such as ‘however’, ‘though’, ‘yet’, ‘therefore’, ‘so’, ‘still’, ‘in addition’, ‘for example’, ‘meanwhile’, ‘to begin with’, ‘in other words’, ‘of course’, and so on:

He didn’t want to go to the party, however, his girlfriend twisted his arm.

In this example, the second comma is needed. Yet, you wouldn’t need the second comma in this example:

He was determined to finish his work, however long it took.

Some wouldn’t use any commas:

He didn’t want to go to the party however his girlfriend twisted his arm.

(That’s certainly not my preference. It’s clumsy.)

To know whether you use a comma or not, it’s very important to understand how these words and phrases relate to the sentence:

So much has been done.

So, how much has been done?

When it comes to commas, you’ve probably noticed I like to use them. Maybe it’s because I write for magazines.

In my mind, you read magazines in your leisure time, when things are not so rushed. You can put up your feet and enjoy a cuppa. Take a break from the demands of everyday.

The use of commas can reflect the slower pace. More breaths, more pauses create a slower rhythm.

Newspapers on the other hand are usually read in a rush. You’re trying to cram as much information in as possible before you have to get on with your day. It makes sense to use less commas, less punctuation.

Though I’ve given some clear guidelines on the use of commas, the best way to learn how to use them is to simply keep an eye out for how your favourite authors and writers use them.

But don’t get too ambitious. Peter Carey didn’t use one comma is his book True History of the Kelly Gang. Only a master writer could get away with doing that so seamlessly.

Do you like using commas? Or is your motto ‘when in doubt, leave it out’?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011 08:22

    This underlines the fact that commas are basically common sense – if in doubt read aloud – but I would say I actively like coommas, and dashes and … all as means of slightly different types of pauses, more often than not, but not exclusively, in dialogue.

    • February 28, 2011 10:56

      I also like commas, Sandra. And dashes. And semicolons. And colons. And hyphens. They are all part of the writer’s palette and though there are some rules around their use, you can also use them like an artist would her paints: artistically.

  2. February 22, 2011 11:37

    Ahhh, the comma…did I use that right?
    I am never sure when the horrid little curly thing is supposed to be used – I don’t remember there being a lesson at school about it. Maybe there was…maybe I was wagging…
    Anyway, thanks for this list of suggestions, Rachel – will keep them in mind.

    • February 23, 2011 22:21

      Heheh, Paul. I was always wagging, but I also know I wasn’t missing much. Particularly in English. Honestly, I can’t believe how abysmal the teaching was at KHS! Let’s just say, most of my learning started after I left school.
      Next week’s post is for you: on the use of colons and semi-colons. I love them even more than I love commas!

  3. February 23, 2011 12:59

    It’s interesting how the comma can change the tone when a piece is being read aloud. Also how writing styles are largely based on context. I was taught the basics of punctuation in primary school and then “untaught” it in university despite grammar being incredibly important within that context. I think I got confuncted by the deconstruction era of post modern theory. Thank you again for sharing this.

    How would a comma vary from a semi colon in affecting the pause? Is it where the sentence is restructed entirely but still has the same meaning? Why would people prefer one over the other, or is it used more to give an aesthetic balance to writing style?

    • February 23, 2011 22:34

      Funny you should mention how commas change the tone of a piece when it is being read aloud, because that is how the comma first come about. It was used as a devise to help actors know how to better read a text. That was before the general populace could read; before people started to read in silence. If you look at old texts (Shakespeare and the like, even Dickens), you’ll notice that the comma is used so much more than it is today. So maybe that’s another reason for it’s demise: when humans started to read silently, there wasn’t as much of a need for it?
      Next week’s post is on the use of semi-colons and colons, so I’ll make sure I answer your questions within it. I’m a big fan of them both!

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