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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!
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!
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.
- To my parents, Donny and God.
- The meal was soup, salad and macaroni and cheese.
- I don't like commas, apostrophes or grammar.
- 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.
- Orson Scott Card, an author, writes good books.
- Learning grammar, in my opinion, is very useful!
Commas are used to separate strings of adjectives (descriptive words.) However, the last adjective in a sentence does not need a comma after it.
- The powerful, energetic man was an excellent athlete.
- The smart, exceptional author learned to use commas correctly.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
When talking to someone, we place a comma after their name to note a brief pause before continuing the sentence.
- 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.
- 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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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! :)