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Comma Usage and Syntax

Updated on June 23, 2017
Marie Flint profile image

Marie studied English at Michigan State University, published two children's shorts and has her childhood stories published in an eBook.

Like a flower, be open and free to accept a new concept that may come your way.
Like a flower, be open and free to accept a new concept that may come your way.

Syntax

Don't let this heading scare you! It simply means "the order that words appear" in a sentence.

For the most part, English sentences are based on subject, verb, other (S / V / O). The subject is the noun (person, place, or thing) doing the action or being (verb), and "other" is everything else.

For very short sentences (five words or less), commas are usually unnecessary. You can use them for clarity or emphasis but meaning can often be understood by the reader without them.

Example: Tom is hurt. S = Tom V = is O = hurt

We will be looking at commas when:

  • the sentence is longer but still has S / V / O
  • the sentence is O / S / V

These plants form a series, one after the other, to border the flower bed.
These plants form a series, one after the other, to border the flower bed. | Source

The Series

A series is anything following, one after the other. In English, a series can either be words or parts of sentences that are similar. The following examples still use the S/V/O syntax.

Example:

The boys held memberships in Boy Scouts, the Canton Glee Club, and the Richfield Hockey Association.

S = boys V = held O = memberships, etc.

Notice the comma after Scouts and Club. Commas are visual signals to help the reader organize ideas.


Sometimes commas separate compound predicates that form a series.

Example:

The Weaverton family dined at the Eatery, watched an adventure movie at 4-Star theater, and spent the rest of the evening by listening to a violin concerto.

S = family V = dined, watched, spent O = at the Eatery, etc.

So, here the commas are separating the various activities in which the family engaged. Again, the commas function as visual aids to help the reader grasp related ideas. To make this point clearer, let's look at how awkward the sentence would be with the commas out of place.

The Weaverton family dined, at the Eatery watched, an adventure movie at the 4-Star theater and spent the rest of the evening by listening to a violin concerto.

Still using only two commas, the sentence is now awkward because the words that belong together are separated by misplaced commas.

Just as the spokes of the spider lily are not the heart of the flower, parenthetical phrases are not the heart of the sentence.
Just as the spokes of the spider lily are not the heart of the flower, parenthetical phrases are not the heart of the sentence.

Parenthetical Words and Phrases

Parenthetical is a big word meaning "aside." The term takes its name from the parentheses (). So, a parenthetical word or phrase is an expression or idea that's somewhat related, but not important to the main idea of the sentence. And, sometimes the "aside," changes the S/V/O syntax to a O/V/S, depending on placement.

Example: Oh, I didn't know you were there.

S = I V = did know O = Oh, you were there

"Oh" functions as a parenthetical word. It ads very little to the sentence. Such words are separated by one or more commas.

Example:

I ate too quickly, as I often do, and gave myself a stomach ache.

"As I often do" can be left out of the sentence without changing the main idea. Notice how it is set off by commas.

S = I V = ate, gave O = too quickly, etc.

The Introductory Dependent Clause

When the S/V/O becomes changed to O/S/V/O, a comma is often used to separate the introductory clause. A clause is a phrase that includes some form of a verb. For the purpose of showing how commas work, I will limit the examples to dependent clauses. "Dependent" means that the group of words cannot stand on their own as a sentence. These types of clauses are best set off by a comma.


Example: Although he heard the explanation, the judge was not convinced.

"Although he heard the explanation" is an introductory clause because it "introduces" something about the judge. The important part of the sentence is "the judge was not convinced." Within the clause is the verb "heard." What makes this clause dependent is the word "although," which puts a condition on the phrase that requires more information.

The syntax of the sentence is O/S/V/O.

O = although, etc. S = judge V = was O = not convinced


Example:

When it started to rain, I opened my umbrella.

"When it started to rain" is the dependent clause. Because it starts the sentence, a comma is used to separate it from the main part of the sentence. The word "when" requires more information than given in the clause itself. If we were to reword the sentence into a S/V/O syntax, no comma would be necessary.

I opened my umbrella when it started to rain.

When the syntax is inverted to a O/S/V/O, a comma is used.

Main Comma Topics of This Hub

  • syntax
  • series
  • parenthetical words and phrases
  • introductory dependent clauses
  • style consistency

Summary and Style Consistency

Commas have many uses not covered within this hub, and I have limited the topics to a few very common uses that are often misunderstood to help the beginning or struggling writer. As you can see in some of the examples given, commas are useful tools to help the reader grasp ideas.

A common practice in modern punctuation is to leave the final comma off before the conjunction (and, or) of the last item in a series. In most cases, the reader can grasp the meaning without this final comma. If you choose to use this style, make all such sentences the same. Flipping back and forth between using the comma, but omitting it later (or vice versa), shows style inexperience and implies apathy on the part of the writer. Always do your best. The care you put into your work will draw the reader back to the hubs that you write in the future.

A Professor's Brief Explanation of Syntax

For Further Comma Study

This was one of my required textbooks in college. Many colleges and universities today still use it as a standard. I highly recommend it.

© 2013 Marie Flint

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    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 2 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Blackspaniel1. Of course, there are a lot of other uses for the comma as well, but I decided to focus on syntax for this hub. Blessings!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      Nice basis of understanding the language. I must admit having fun with an English professor friend by writing as Yoda. Write backwards, I must. It makes for humor, which is also important.

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 2 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      You're welcome, Jack. The tendency today is to use fewer commas. This hub article covers basic construction with syntax, though.

    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 2 years ago from Yorktown NY

      Thanks for these helpful tips.

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 2 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      The comma, of course, has other uses, Peg, but I chose to focus on syntax where most mistakes seem to be made. I'm glad you found this article helpful.

      Blessings!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Commas are so misunderstood. Thanks for this reminder of their proper usage with examples.

    • Michael Kismet profile image

      Michael Kismet 3 years ago from Northern California

      Ugh, this reminds me that I'm not always the most vigilant when it comes to syntax and proper comma usage. A stark reminder of the aspects of my writing I have to work on, thanks for enlightening. Great article for the impulsive or impatient aspiring writer.

      M

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      The comma can be used to designate an intended pause, which I have not discussed in this hub. Just be sure not to overdo this practice and check to be sure ideas are grouped together to aid the reader's understanding. A comma to indicate an intended pause is especially useful in poetry and fiction. When used this way, commas can add a dramatic effect.

    • aravindb1982 profile image

      Aravind Balasubramanya 3 years ago from Puttaparthi, India

      Thank you for this hub. I type all my articles on the go. So sometimes, I make use of the comma whenever I pause to contemplate! Hahahahaha

      Voted up and useful.

    • The Stages Of ME profile image

      The Stages Of ME 3 years ago

      Thank you for this hub. I admit I am a horrible editor and sadly write as I think and speak, probably to a fault. I wish I could learn to conceptualize the correct uses of grammar, sadly not my gifted area. I always appreciate help in this area and one day I pray that the information actually sticks to my brain. Great hub for those of us that enjoy creatively writing and yet stink at the part that brings it all together. If only it didn't look like and algebra theory as I look at the concepts. One day it will come to clarity. One day at a time :)

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I corrected one error. The verb under the example of the introductory dependent clause is "was." It read "not" previously; "not" is simply a negation. It is not and never has been a verb. (My mind works faster than my fingers when keyboarding, but the error has been corrected now.)

    • profile image

      Benjamin Chege 3 years ago

      Dear Vicki Marie Anderson Flint. I must admit that I have learned a few things here and there about the comma that I have always ignored. Thanks for sharing. Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 3 years ago

      This is a very good explanation of basic use of commas, Marie. I think the comma is the most misused of all the punctuation marks. As a law editor, I see usage that totally belies the intent of the drafter. I also see usage that is intentionally ambiguous so lawyers can fight the law’s intent out in court. Our style here is to use a comma before the final item in a series so the court doesn’t have to decide whether the ham and eggs served to the defendant was one combined dish or two separate dishes. I love the illustration, “Let’s eat Grandma,” or is it “Lets eat, Grandma.” I guess it just depends on whether one is dining with Little Red Riding Hood.

      Anyway, good hub and I hope lots of people learn something from you. Voted you up ++

    • Marie Flint profile image
      Author

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I confess to being an English major who makes mistakes and is always learning. English is a living language that changes. Poetry and fiction are types of writing that allow freer use of language rules than article (hub) writing. Even if you focus on video hubs, you are probably going to write a caption, introduction, or summary. One thing for sure--the comma is NOT dead in our language, so I hope this discussion, the examples, and the quiz get hubbers into being a little more conscientious about where and when to use that little "do-dad," if at all. Blessings and good hubbing!