Commas might be one of the most frequently used punctuation marks alongside the full-stop. However, is that a good thing? These dynamic little marks on a page indicate a small break in a sentence. So, when used incorrectly, they can be a horror to the flow and coherence of a sentence. Even when used correctly, too many can give a reader anxiety about what is happening, leave them out of breath and cause them to lose interest.
Just like any punctuation mark, it is important that we understand when and how to use them. When we write our stories, essays, business documents or whatever it is we’re writing, we need to make sure our audience can understand it. So, with the comma being as commonly used as it is, we need to make sure we’re using them right! This post will provide some insight into the proper use of commas as per the Australian Style manual for authors, editors and printers (Snooks & Co 2002) as well as some comments from me about them.
Read the sentence below:
Due to the argument, between myself and Theodore we are now in a position of ill-content and, there will be delays on our attendance to the gathering, that you invited us to.
Now, it’s not hard to see that every comma in that sentence has been placed incorrectly. It impedes our ability to read and understand the message. As you can imagine, it was a very hard sentence for me to write!
However, sometimes commas used in the right way can cause issues. Read the sentence (yes, it’s one whole sentence) below:
The clouds, which floated lower than usual, were of a grey tinge that held the smell of damp, sticky rain, and by standing outside with the humidity clinging to her skin, Lorraine, a girl with a particular interest in her appearance, only felt anguish and anger of the impact this would have on her hair, which had already started curling uncontrollably at the ends, and what this would mean for the way Danielle, a popular and gorgeous girl from her work, would think of her shiny, wet and, now, quite smelly attire and skin.
Although the commas have been used in the correct way, it’s not exactly the easiest sentence to read. By separating some of these points into their own sentences, suddenly you have an easy to read paragraph that sets the scene.
Both of these examples are seen in all types of writing and results in issues of comprehension. It can also have an impact to the reputation of the writer or business, leaving an impression that either are not professional. Or, if it is a business or writer held in high regard, it could influence the way other people use their commas. This would then result in commas being stuck in this never-ending spiral of different rules and meanings until, we’re, writing, sentences, like, this (oh, God forbid!).
So, when and how can we use them? Well, the most common answers would be ‘where appropriate’ and ‘sparingly’. Although a popular punctuation mark, it has grown a bit of a reputation of being something that people don’t want to use for that reason. I mean, it’s not at the stage of having a reputation like the semicolon and it shouldn’t! Commas are simple and dynamic little marks that, once you understand how to use them properly, will make your writing easier to read and understand.
So, here are some key rules and reasons of when and how to use them:
I’m sure we’ve all seen some of those great jokes about correct grammar saves lives. ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ and ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ and all that jazz. Well, that’s exactly what this is about. Commas are a fantastic way to eliminate ambiguity in a sentence. So, if your sentence isn’t making sense, it might be worth putting a comma in where appropriate.
Lists and adjectives
Ultimately, it gets confusing if someone writes a list not in bullet points without using commas. I mean, imagine trying to stay happy reading a sentence such as ‘This document contains information about my age address contact details relationships and accounts I hold’. I mean, it gave me a headache writing that, let alone reading it!
The same goes for adjectives as well. If you don’t know what an adjective is, they are words that describe a noun (or thing, if you don’t know what a noun is). Adjectives come in three different types—descriptive, evaluative and definitive—which only need to be separated by a comma if you use multiple of the same kind. For example, ‘The cat had soft, shiny, fluffy fur’ (all descriptive) compared to ‘She was a funny old French woman’ (evaluative, descriptive, then definitive).
What to do with however
However is an expression similar to furthermore, for instance, for example and so on. It’s not uncommon to see them used with commas in the wrong way. However, the rule is that they must be followed with a comma. If they are placed within a sentence, then a comma must go before them.
My opinion on however is that it is best used as an introductory expression. Therefore, they would always come after a full-stop and be followed by a comma.
If you don’t know what a parenthetic expression is, they are parts of sentences that could be placed in curved brackets or parentheses. Another way to spot them is that you can remove them from the sentence and the sentence will still make sense. For example, ‘He put on his shoes, although it wasn’t necessary, to go downstairs’. As you can see, a comma is placed on either side of the parenthetic expression to indicate this.
And, finally, coordinate clauses
I left this one last because it’s one that will generally catch me from time to time. Basically, coordinate clauses can be read as separate statements but are linked by conjunctions such as and, yet, but and so on. However, when to use a comma in this situation can be a little more complicated than that. You see, it depends on the length of the sentence. So, the sentence ‘She felt the sun rays fall upon her as she ran around the field in a state of euphoria, and a man nearby watched intently in the shadows of the trees that whistled in the hot and humid breeze’ uses a comma but ‘The dance was long and several people went home after it was done’ does not. So, I’ll leave that one up to you to decide when to use it!
So, that’s that! There are a few other rules for commas that begin to get a little more complicated. However, I would recommend having a look into it if you want to start using commas at their mightiest.
I hope you have learnt something today about the use of commas! If you have any questions, leave a comment here or on social media and I’ll answer it as best as I can.
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.