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How to Use a Comma

Updated on December 5, 2011
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William Strunk, Jr., was the quintessential English professor. E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web” and many other works of poetry and fiction, was Professor Strunk’s student. Together they wrote the best-ever guide for grammar and punctuation: “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White.

In “The Elements of Style”, Strunk and White discuss, among many other things, the comma. Actually they discuss it eight times. The instances of comma use (and misuse) they cite are:

  • with abbreviations
  • in compound sentences
  • before conjunctions
  • with dates
  • with parenthetical expressions
  • with quotations
  • serial commas
  • the comma vs. the period

Consulting Strunk and White in all these instances will effectively help eliminate comma abuse and promote proper comma use. You might well ask, why did I bother to write about commas if all I am going to do is cite Strunk and White? Well, bucko, I’ll tell you. I have more to say on the subject.

One rule of thumb provided by my Professional Writing professor at Northeastern University was: “When in doubt, leave it out.” Notice that I included a comma. If I wrote, “When in doubt leave it out,” would you understand it? Yes, I think you would. However, the pause generated by the comma after “doubt” better approximates what I hear in my mind when I think the phrase.

I suggest that one place a comma belongs is where you want the reader to pause. As Strunk and White point out (although they don’t put it quite this way) the pause is sometimes necessary to prevent misunderstanding. Take as an example the following sentence:

“My friend drew, from memory, charcoal drawings.”

Or

“My friend drew from memory charcoal drawings.”

The second sentence is much less understandable. In the beginning we think that the friend is drawing from images he remembers, then at the end we are puzzled by the possible existence of “memory charcoal drawings.” What on Earth is a ‘memory charcoal drawing.’ A drawing of memory? A drawing by memory?

So we see that the comma is sometimes vital to meaning. Yet, if we, use it too much, we find, that as we, read, it is a stop, and go, affair. Reading is a supposed to flow smoothly therefore writing must flow smoothly.

I submit that the real trick of using the comma correctly is to leave it out except when it is vital to the meaning of the sentence or when a pause is otherwise desirable. I invite those more learned to disagree.

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    • stars439 profile image

      stars439 5 years ago from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State.

      Wonderful hub. GBY

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      That's a classic! Thank you, Samanthamayer!

    • samanthamayer profile image

      samanthamayer 5 years ago from New Zealand

      "Let's eat, Grandpa!"

      "Let's eat Grandpa!"

      Terrible joke, I know.

      Great hub. Punctuation is getting lazier and lazier these days!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      "Common comma conundrum." Priceless. I think I may be in a comma coma. Thank you, Rob!

    • Rob Jundt profile image

      Rob Jundt 5 years ago from Midwest USA

      Substituting the comma for a period is a common comma conundrum. Comma splices, the bane of many a good paper, are too often spliced. Thanks for an educational, and terse, read.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      Eastern Time Boston USA 7:26am -

      thank you! I also greatly admire your work.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 5 years ago

      ...well I like using commas, in all places, poetry!

      Gee I hope I am using it right - and treating it like a proper comma - and not a coma!!!! lol

      Hi Tom - man oh man you have some hubtastic subjects here in your sacred space - and to receive the royal endorsement of my humble hubspace from a great writer like you really means a lot!

      lake erie time ontario canada 5:57am - just arrived home after work and posted two new ones ...

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      The AP stylebook is a great resource. I think usage is trending more toward less is more in terms of punctuation. Thanks very much for sharing your knowledge and wisdom, Kathleen.

      I forgot about that great book, Sally! That's a great book.

    • Truckstop Sally profile image

      Truckstop Sally 5 years ago

      Are you familiar with Eats, shoots and leaves. Funny book about punctuation. Joke about a panda . . . (Is the shoots a noun or a verb?) I agree with Kathleen about writing a simpler sentence. Ha!

    • Kathleen Cochran profile image

      Kathleen Cochran 5 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      When in doubt, leave it out. I used to be a newspaper editor, which is where I learned not to put a comma in a simple series. It's an AP Stylebook thing. In formal English you see commas in simple series all the time. I always told my reporters, if it's too complicated a sentence to know where to put a comma - write a simplier sentence!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      "She has gum on her..." priceless. Thank you, Dallas.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 5 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      She has gum on her, but she is pretty! Imagine if the comma was left out..!

      Perhaps commas are like, "caution" signs on the roads...

      Thanks for the refresher.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      If my article was helpful, Ruby, it was a success :)

      That is very great praise, Vinaya.

      Mark, I agonized over the sentence and in the process was toying with a pun on "drew", but put it aside. Nevertheless it appears that it was not so easily killed off after all. Most writers have an English teacher who looms large, be it in darkness or light, in our past. One thing they all seem to have in common - they have strong personalities. Thank you.

      Thanks so much, Larry.

    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 5 years ago from Northern California

      Voted up and useful. This hub will be very helpful to all of the occasionally commatose writers out there, including myself.

    • Alexander Mark profile image

      Alexander Silvius 5 years ago from beautiful, rainy, green Portland, Oregon

      This is timely because I was just reading and article in Writer's Digest about using commas for a list, such as: I bought soap, kitty litter, beef and toilet paper. The controversy was over whether there should be a comma before, "and." Without going into detail, the author's conclusion was the same as yours, whatever makes it easier to read. I learned the same thing in the college newspaper where I spent an uncomfortable semester as facts and commas were manipulated beyond belief.

      But what I learned in middle school has stuck with me. You always put a comma after a name and I am not sure if there should be one before it also, but I can tell you the first sentence you presented WITH the comma confused me, I thought drew was a name because of the comma behind it, despite the fact that drew was not capitalized. I admit your way is more logical, but my crazy English teacher from middle school has brainwashed me (she also had long nails and always grabbed the shortest piece of chalk without fail).

      Oh man, now I have a headache. Please write more on this subject!

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 5 years ago from Nepal

      As a non-native English user I found your article very useful.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 5 years ago from Southern Illinois

      This is helpful. I have this tendency to use too many commas. When in doubt, leave it out. I can remember that. Thank you......

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
      Author

      Tom Rubenoff 5 years ago from United States

      I had hoped that this would be a good lesson in the care and feeding of the Comma. Thank you all for the validation :)

    • sweetzara profile image

      Zara Rasul 5 years ago from Mumbai, India

      This is a very lucid explanation of using commas. So many writers, myself included, use commas inappropriately. This really helps clear things. When it doubt, leave it out... thats great advice that one can remember easily.

    • TattooKitty profile image

      TattooKitty 5 years ago from Hawaii

      A great resource for writers! I'll definitely share with my students! Voted up and useful!!

    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 5 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Bravo, Tom! Well, done. Oops. Well done! ;D