Writing Tips: How To Use Commas

Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and my weakness is mathematics. It's always been difficult for me to grasp, and it always seemed like math instructors were hardwired to teach it in the same way: badly. If they had adapted their method of teaching to something I could follow I probably would have a much better understanding of it than I do now.

Often, learning English grammar is the same idea. We're taught to learn big words like adverb, clause, preposition, split infinitive, and so on--yet often the message of why and how to use grammar is completely lost. Many people, including myself, suffered through grammar class because of one reason and one reason only: it wasn't taught in a meaningful way! It wasn't interesting, it wasn't fun, and it certainly wasn't easy.

I'm here to shed some light on what grammar actually is: an indispensable tool that, when understood, will open new doorways for you as a writer. Let's learn about commas: they're used all the time and are one of the most important punctuation marks in writing. There may be a lot to learn, but each small lesson is pretty easy. Let's go!

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Lists ("Serials")

One of the most common uses for commas is to separate words in a list. The basic rule is if you're listing something, put a comma after it. If two things go together (like "oats and honey"), put a comma after the pair. Make sure that what you're trying to say is clear to the reader!

  • Oats and honey, coffee, cream
  • Split infinitives, gerunds, insanity
  • Blah, blah, blah

The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma belongs in the list category but is so controversial I've put it in its own section. For some reason there is a group of people who vehemently condemn its use, but I've never understood why. The only reason I can think of is that opponents view it as persnickety, unneeded, and snobbish. As we'll see, though, that's far from the case!

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I'm a huge supporter of the Oxford comma. It erases all possibility of ambiguity (confusion.) It's standard use in the US, but in Britain has fallen out of favor. The Oxford comma is placed before the words and, or, nor in a list.

Without (ambiguous):

  • To my parents, Donny and God.
  • The meal was soup, salad and macaroni and cheese.
  • I don't like commas, apostrophes or grammar.

With (unambiguous):

  • To my parents, Donny, and God.
  • The meal was soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese.
  • I don't like commas, apostrophes, or grammar.

A popular band, Vampire Weekend, has written a song half-condemning the Oxford comma. However, they're such a good band, it doesn't bother me much. I'd hate to read their autobiographies, however.

Breaks In Sentences ("Appositives")

A break in a sentence that adds more information is sandwiched between two commas. If you take the commas and additional information out of the sentence, it's still a coherent sentence.

Examples:

  • Orson Scott Card, an author, writes good books.
  • Learning grammar, in my opinion, is very useful!

Between Adjectives

Commas are used to separate strings of adjectives (descriptive words.) However, the last adjective in a sentence does not need a comma after it.

Examples:

  • The powerful, energetic man was an excellent athlete.
  • The smart, exceptional author learned to use commas correctly.

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Between A City/State, City/Province, City/Country, State/Country

A comma goes between the city and its state/province/country. When using the name of a place at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence, a comma separates the state/province from the rest of the sentence.

Examples:

  • I'm originally from Boulder, CO.
  • A few years ago I visited Saskatoon, SK.
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a unique university town.
  • I visited San Francisco, California, USA, when I was a kid.
  • I'd just arrived in Chennai, India, and was already hooked.

After Introductory Phrases

Commas separate the beginning phrase of a sentence. It's a brief introduction but isn't part of the subject or verb. To illustrate this, we separate it from the sentence using a comma.

Example:

  • In the beginning, there was light.
  • At the end of the day, commas are pretty useful!

Between Two Sentences ("Independent Clauses")

Sometimes two complete sentences are tied together with a comma. They're stand-alone sentences united for convenience.

Examples:

  • You might feel overwhelmed right now, but you'll get the hang of this.
  • Grammar takes lots of practice, but it's definitely worth learning!

Remember that song Karma Chameleon?
Remember that song Karma Chameleon? | Source

Direct Address

When talking to someone, we place a comma after their name to note a brief pause before continuing the sentence.

Examples:

  • Heather, you've got to stop reading so much about grammar.
  • But Mom, everyone's learning how to use commas but me!

Before Direct Quotations

When a quotation is being introduced, we put a comma after the introduction and before the quote. No commas are needed when using a partial quote.

Examples:

  • Before leaving, John asked, "Did you know I learned about commas today?"
  • When reading his paper, Martha said, "My God, what impeccable grammar!"

No comma needed:

  • According to her friends, the author of this hub is "a Grammar Nazi."
  • Debby asked me if I was always this fussy about grammar.

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Wheww!

I realize commas are used for just about everything, and it's going to take a while for you to remember all of this. Please use this hub as a reference when you need help! To be honest, commas give me a hard time. Every time I edit a paper or hub I delete about 20% of my commas.

Through practice we can all improve our understanding of commas and grammar. Don't worry; it takes time, patience, and perseverance, but in the end it all pays off. Practice makes perfect! Don't worry if you don't remember everything right away. I still can't remember some things about commas and I'm a Grammar Nazi! :)

Copyright © 2011 Faceless39. All rights reserved.

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Comments 39 comments

krosch profile image

krosch 5 years ago

Another excellent addition to what I assume will be a growing number of grammar articles. Keep up the good work and the more resources to help people who want to improve their grammar the better. Thanks for writing this.


Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 5 years ago from Orlando, FL

Useful, interesting, awesome, UP and thank you for a great hub! :))


Husky1970 5 years ago

Your opening paragraph had me feeling a bit blue, Faceless39. I honestly believe that, as a mathematics teacher, I would have been able to find a way to reach you. As a result, you would hopefully feel better about the subject today.

Anyway, your hub on the use of the comma is a good one. I have always felt that a good rule of thumb would be "when in doubt, use one." There is nothing worse than trying to read someone's writing when commas are omitted. Your examples and explanations are clear, concise, and effective.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

P.S. Do you agree with my usage of the 10 commas in this comment?


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Thanks for the great feedback, you guys! Yes, there are many more grammar articles to come! :)

Husky, I'm glad there are math teachers out there who have your passion! It's unfortunate that I never bumped into one. Have you considered writing hubs that shed some light on mathematics? That would be awesome! By the way, not only is your comma usage impeccable, but so is your grammar generally--I'm very impressed! :)


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Great Hub. I totally and emphatically agree with you about the Oxford comma. It makes so many fuzzy and confusing sentences perfectly clear. I use it all the time and am irritated almost beyond belief when some of the English faculty where I teach omit the comma before the conjunction. They are English teachers for heaven's sake!! Thanks.


thelyricwriter profile image

thelyricwriter 5 years ago from West Virginia

This is some great useful info Faceless. Pretty cool quiz as well. That last one is really a stumper. I got a 50%, 100% the second time though:) Great article that really comes in handy when writing. Bookmarked. Voted up and useful.


lpanfil profile image

lpanfil 5 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

Nice hub. As a local newspaper writer, I am asked to speak to language arts students. I tell them to use their commas! Better yet, ask yourself if a sentence would be more concise if it were broken up into two sentences. Some writers think the more complicated their sentence structure the more brilliant their writing. Not true.


Keith Engel profile image

Keith Engel 5 years ago from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Very good hub with useful information on the use of commas. In this age of poor education and texting language shortcuts becoming king, the importance of grammar is being lost on an entire generation of people.


zanaworld profile image

zanaworld 5 years ago from Bangalore

I couldn't image, that one can write so much about simple comma...

Great hub!


missolive profile image

missolive 5 years ago from Texas

This is awesome! I LOVE your hubs! I will bookmark this one along with your other grammar hubs! (eat Grandpa - lol)

Voted up and awesome!


ronhi profile image

ronhi 5 years ago from Kenya

why am i not surprised with the quiz results?

"You're Well On Your Way To Comma Genius!" :(

But at least i can say i not only found the hub useful but interesting and funny. I never knew a "nazi" can be funny too.

Now let me scroll up to locate that green button


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Thanks everyone for your awesome comments! They keep me going and remind me that all the hard work it TOTALLY worth it! I'm so glad the world of HubPages will now have more properly-placed commas! Woot-woot! :)


catgypsy profile image

catgypsy 5 years ago from the South

Faceless, thanks so much for this hub! I have problems all the time with commas, have read the rules and still don't get all of them. You've made this so simple and it's going to help me so much! Just what I needed!


stephaniedas profile image

stephaniedas 5 years ago from Miami, US

Awesome hub! I'd like to buy the commas save lives poster.


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Catgypsy, I'm so glad these grammar hubs will be helpful to your writing. There are lots of rules and unfortunately the way it's usually taught goes over my head (and mostly everyone else's!)

Stephaniedas, yeah I feel like it should be prominently displayed in school cafeterias or something haha! Feel free to download and share. :)


Ruchira profile image

Ruchira 5 years ago from United States

UP...UP...UP.

I agree Grammar was such a boring subject and learning punctuation was not easy.

Loved this hub.


stephaniedas profile image

stephaniedas 5 years ago from Miami, US

Hey there...I just wanted to let you know that I was editing content for a website I'm working on right now, and the content that the client gave me was full of grammatical errors. I recalled your hub and looked it up for a guide in correcting it!


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

@Ruchira, I'm glad to see that you enjoyed it so much. Truth be told, I'm pretty sure I didn't learn anything in grammar class LOL. Thanks so much for your feedback! :)

@Stephaniedas, it's so thoughtful of you to come back and let me know. Things like this make it totally worthwhile. Thank you so much! :)


SanneL profile image

SanneL 5 years ago from Sweden

The use of the comma can be quite confusing. However, this hub is going to help me.

Bookmarked and voted up.

Thank you!:)


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 5 years ago

I will be using your hubpages often. Great information. I really needed a refresher course on commas. I scored 100% on the quiz!


sterimar profile image

sterimar 5 years ago from Somewhere

This is very helpful Hub for people like me who wants to improve my grammar. ;-)


ThoughtSandwiches profile image

ThoughtSandwiches 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

faceless...

One of my writing resolutions for 2012 is to reduce my use of unneeded ellipses by 34%. I should think...knowing how to comma properly will help that goal.

I have bookmarked accordingly! I may use the Oxford comma as a character in a future story...I guess he wouldn't be dressed as fancy as his name implies. Perhaps, business casual?

Thanks!

Thomas

PS...shout out to missolive for the directions overhear!


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Thanks to everyone for the awesome comments. I'm so glad this hub is easy to follow; that's really what I was going for. Thanks!


scottrights profile image

scottrights 4 years ago from San Diego

The humor is great, and the quiz is great. Faceless39, I think I'm using the comma correctly!


htodd profile image

htodd 4 years ago from United States

Great points you have on "How to use commas"..Thanks faceless for the post


Parks McCants profile image

Parks McCants 4 years ago from Eugene Oregon U.S.A.

Thank you.


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Great comments, thanks! And you are using the comma correctly, Scottrights. You must be a Master Chief of commas.


Israel 4 years ago

Faceless, i've been having some problems in punctuations, but now, i think am coping up.


girlonfire profile image

girlonfire 4 years ago

Glad to see the Oxford comma in its own section. Controversial as it may be, I still stick to it.


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

I'm glad to know that you not only use the Oxford comma, but also aren't afraid to admit it. You have my respect.

Thanks for the comments!


Steve West profile image

Steve West 4 years ago from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

It was hard concentrating on the topic due to the laughter problem while reading your awesome hub on commas. I burst out in laughter while reading and my wife asked, "what are you reading?" I told her I was reading about commas. Laughter and punctuation, however did you do it Faceless39?

Commas have been driving me nuts. I considered never using them again, however I do not want anyone to get eaten (like grandpa). Your hub was awesome. It was the visual I needed to understand those silly, stupid, pain in the butt, punctuation marks. However, they really make a huge difference in your credibility as a writer. I can't wait to check-out semi-colons next, after my cramp goes away. Thank you.


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Thanks for your awesome comment, Steve! It's so nice to hear when someone gets a better grasp of grammar from one of these hubs. It's a difficult subject, and to be honest, commas are one of the toughest punctuation marks to deal with (at least for me.)

Semicolons are one of my favorite punctuation marks, so I'm glad you mentioned them. Don't forget the poor misused (often) apostrophe as well! Have a great day.


atotsm profile image

atotsm 4 years ago from Timbuktu

Language could be made a lot easier; so more people could speak up. But, an interesting article it is (Yoda-fan)!


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 4 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Ha, I'm a Yoda fan myself and started my own page on Facebook: Original Star Wars Trilogy (because in my opinion, they're far and away the best ones.)

Thanks for the funny comment! :)


Ghaelach 3 years ago

Hi Kate.

I'm looking for an answer, and after reading this superb hub on English grammar I'm sure you can help me. I have seen variations of "quote", and "quote," which is it to be. Can you let me know which is correct. Is the comma inside or outside of the quotation

LOL Ghaelach


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 3 years ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Hi Ghaelach, thanks for reading and posting a great comment and question! Without further ado, the answer you've been waiting for:

"Quote," with the comma inside of the quotation marks, is the grammatically-correct method. Wonderful question!


Ghaelach 3 years ago

Morning Kate.

Living in Europe for the last 25 years, one tends to forget little things from your mother language, as you learn and speak what is basically a foreign language. Although after 25 years I speak German fluent,

Once again thank you for your help and quick reply.

Take care and have a nice day.

LOL Ghaelach


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 15 months ago from Dallas, Texas

Reading this was a pleasure. I enjoyed your tips and funny examples.


Faceless39 profile image

Faceless39 15 months ago from The North Woods, USA Author

Thanks for reading and for your wonderful comments! :)

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