- Books, Literature, and Writing
Online Writing Courses: Commas Part I
Improve writing skills with my online writing classes
This is another installment of my online writing classes. Several people have requested that I write an article about comma usage, so consider me your online writing tutor! Using commas correctly can be confusing, but learning to do so will improve your writing skills.
Why do correct commas improve writing skills? Commas improve writing skills by making sentences clear and easy to understand. A misplaced comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. For example, look at these examples from two different Holy Bibles:
“This I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
“This I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
According to the Bible, Christ said these words to the thief on the cross. Even though the exact same words are used in both sentences, the sentences have different meanings because of the placement of the comma. In the first, Christ is telling the thief that he will go to Paradise, but he doesn’t say when the thief will get his reward. In the second sentence, Jesus is telling the thief that both victims will be in Paradise on that very day.
I just use these as an example and am not trying to start a religious debate. I had much rather be an online writing tutor and continue with my online writing courses than to be a minister!
Items in a series
Three or more words, phrases, or clauses that are in a series joined by and, or, or nor need commas:
Sam, Joe, and Mike are in the living room.
She brought rolls, a pie, and a casserole.
I enjoy fishing, going to the beach, and hiking in the woods.
The final comma in a series is considered optional in a few online writing classes, but the majority of experts favor including it.
Coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are easy to remember as “FANBOYS.” When a coordinating conjunction joins two independent clauses, a comma is needed:
I went outside, and I discovered that my car had been stolen.
See? These are two clauses that would make perfect sense on their own. Each part of this compound sentence has a subject and a verb and is a complete thought:
I went outside.
I discovered that my car had been stolen.
If both parts of the sentence joined by FANBOYS aren’t independent, you don’t need a comma:
I went outside and discovered that my car had been stolen.
“Discovered that my car had been stolen” doesn’t have a subject and isn’t an independent clause. Here are some more examples:
I went to the store, and I bought some bread.
I went to the store and bought some bread.
She was sick, but she went to the party.
She was sick but went to the party.
He’s skinny, yet he’s muscular.
He’s skinny yet muscular.
An appositive renames the subject and should be separated with commas:
Mr. Jones, my math teacher, always gives us homework.
My sister, Sara Brown, lives in Florida.
Many people make mistakes with coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are adjectives that have equal importance and appear next to each other in a sentence. They should be separated by a comma:
We saw a gnarled, twisted tree at the beach.
On the table was an expensive, exotic figurine.
This is where it gets tricky: If the two modifiers aren’t coordinate adjectives, you don’t use a comma:
The big red barn was in a green field.
You wouldn’t use a comma between big and red. How can you tell if two adjectives aren’t coordinate adjectives? There are two ways to tell. If and can be substituted for the comma, the comma is needed. Also, if the adjectives can be used in reverse order, they’re coordinate adjectives and need a comma to separate them.
We saw a gnarled and twisted tree at the beach.
We saw a twisted and gnarled tree at the beach.
See? This pair of adjectives needs a comma. The following, however, do not:
The big and red barn was in a green field. (incorrect)
The red, big barn was in a green field. (incorrect)
These sentences are awkward. Big and red are not coordinate adjectives here, so there’s no need for a comma.
Comma use with dates can also get confusing. A general rule of thumb is that when two numbers OR two words are used next to each other, a comma is needed:
Thanksgiving is on Thursday, November 25.
I got my first pony on December 25, 1966.
Columbus landed in the New World in October 1492.
You don’t need a comma if different parts of the date are connected by a preposition:
Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday in November.
In American English, a comma is also needed after a complete date:
On October 13, 1492, Columbus landed in the New World.
I hope students found this information helpful and will employ these strategies to improve writing skills. There’s much more to learn about commas, and I plan on providing more online writing classes about commas and punctuation. In the links below, you'll find more of my online writing courses!
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