The Elusive Comma — Carolyn R. Wilker

Book-stackImagine trying to read a long text without commas or other punctuation. Would it be hard to figure out where one sentence begins and another ends? What about the words in the middle of those sentences?

Old English was written that way. With time, punctuation was developed, and some scribes used it more consistently than others. The writer of that article says punctuation “guides the reader through the syntax of the sentence.”

Then along comes the trend to use fewer commas, to save space in a publication and sometimes for style reasons. Confused already?

Punctuation helps the reader

Old English aside, many writers struggle with placement of the comma. They appear where they should, where they shouldn’t, and sometimes they don’t show up at all.

On one of his visits home, my brother and I were talking about books we had read and somehow we landed in a comma discussion about where they go in a sentence. He said, half guessing, “Where we take a breath in?”

He’s partly right, because we often do take a breath where there’s a comma. If there isn’t one, and we were to go by that, well, we’d run out of air.

Look at the comma as a helper. It marks the end of a clause in a sentence like this one: “Donna and her husband went on a Caribbean cruise, because that’s the kind of holiday they enjoy.”

“Donna and her husband went on a cruise” is the first clause, and “because that’s the kind of holiday they enjoy” is the second one. The two clauses are connected by a comma before the conjunction “because.” A conjunction connects the two parts and the comma precedes the conjunction.

Serial comma

Another place the comma appears is in a list of items in a sentence. “I’m going on a retreat, and I’m going to take boots, sleeping bag, and enough clothing for the weekend.” The last comma, just before the word “and” in the example, is commonly called the serial comma since it separates list items.

I often omit that comma in my writing, but left it in for this example. Here it is, without the serial comma: “I’m going on a retreat, and I’m going to take boots, sleeping bag and enough clothing for the weekend.” Does this confuse you? Probably not since this is a fairly straightforward example.

Sometimes it’s a style rule within a publication to leave out the serial comma. If the meaning is not clear without the comma, then leave it in. Other editors would agree with me on this point.

So there you have it: two uses for the comma—separating two clauses and items within a list, and the serial comma. Find a good grammar guide, preferably one with a study element to it, then apply the learning to your writing.

For further study:

Practical Grammar, second edition, by Maxine Ruvinsky

Checkmate: A Writing Resource for Canadians, Joanne Buckley

OWL at Purdue University offers information online for commas here.


Carolyn-Wilker-2Carolyn R. Wilker writes, edits and tells stories in Ontario, Canada. Her book, Once Upon a Sandbox, is a narrative in prose and poetry about life on a family farm in the 50s and 60s.

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1 comment

  1. Janice Dick says:

    Good advice, Carolyn. I always appreciate a resource list too. Thanks.

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