The Elusive Comma — Carolyn Wilker

In writing classes, particularly when it comes to grammar, we often get in a discussion over commas. While one throws up her hands and says, “Let the editor fix it,” another asks, “Tell me again where they go.”

comma or punctuationIt seems the comma is out to elude writers. Commas appear where they should, where they shouldn’t, and sometimes they don’t show up at all.

My brother likes to read, and one time when he was home for a visit, our conversation drifted to books and then to commas and when to use them. He said, half guessing, “Where we take a breath?”

He’s partly right, because we often do take a breath where there’s a comma, but that’s not the end of the matter.

A comma is your helper

Look at the lowly comma as a helper. If there were no commas, and we had one long complex sentence, the reader could become confused. In the University of Wisconsin’s A Short History of Commas, a staff writer says, “Punctuation marks got their start as a way of sorting out the confusion by, for example, breaking material into longer and shorter sections.”

Texts were “often read aloud or recited from memory by orators” and so the rule of placing commas wherever you’d take a breath can be traced back to the earliest days of reading and writing.

One of the Top 10 reasons for learning placement of commas, according to this website is: “It’s better than spending the rest of your life in a fog.”

If you feel in a fog about commas, you are not alone. Many writers struggle with punctuation, and so I offer examples for two common uses.

1. To Connect Clauses 

A comma marks the end of a clause in a sentence like this one: “Mary and her husband went on a cruise, because that’s the kind of holiday they enjoy.”

“Mary and her husband went on a cruise” is the first clause, and “because that’s the kind of holiday they enjoy” is the second clause. The two parts of the sentence are connected by a comma and the conjunction “because.” The second clause completes the sentence by giving the reason they take cruises.

2. Serial Commas

The comma appears in a list of items in this sentence: “I’m going on a holiday, and I will pack my beach towel, swimsuit and a good book.” See the comma after towel, but none after swimsuit? Newspapers, in their need to get as much advertising on their pages as possible, measure space by the column inch, and trying to save space, someone came up with the idea of dropping the comma before the last item on a list.

Try the sentence this way: “… a towel, swimsuit, and a good book.” The comma before the word “and” is commonly called the serial comma since it separates list items. In this list you could write “a towel, swimsuit and a good book” without any misunderstanding of the meaning.

The serial comma has sparked controversy among grammarians and writers—to drop it or leave it. Not everyone will agree, but I believe that the serial comma can most often be dropped, except if dropping it would cause confusion for the reader.

Where can I learn more?

So there you have it: two uses for the comma and a bit of education to clear some of the fog. To learn more about punctuation, and the comma in particular, here are two reliable grammar books: Practical Grammar and Checkmate.

If the comma still eludes you, take comfort in knowing that your editor can help.

carolyn-wilkerCarolyn Wilker, editor, writing instructor, and author of Once Upon a Sandbox

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