People are funny about commas. They either love them or hate them.
Some have been so confused by English teachers through the ages that they’ve completely given up on the rules, which seemed to vary from teacher to teacher. Others cling with desperation to what their fourth-grade (or fifth, sixth, etc.) teachers told them, and nobody can dissuade them. Not even the Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White, or any other so-called experts.
Of course, I believe that I’m an expert in commas. Which means that I have a few rules of my own to impart. (What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. I shall not go into depth, for example, on the Holy Oxford Comma; I’ll save that for another post. But these are some handy rules that, if they’re followed, will ensure that you won’t run afoul of obsessive people like me who find commas and their proper use worth thinking about.)
- If you have a list of items, you should separate them with commas. Example: Joe, Bob, Joe Bob, and Bobby Jo all went to the fair. Now, some of you will look at that list and say that the comma before “and Bobby Jo” is unnecessary. Indeed, I was also taught that this was an incorrect usage. That comma, also known as the Holy Oxford Comma, is a miracle of clarity. And that’s why we use these lovely little curlycues in lists: to make things clearer. (By the way, I’m the only person who refers to the Oxford Comma as Holy. But if you would like to join me in my comma crusade, feel free!) I’m sure you can see why the other commas are necessary, even if the HOC is under dispute. Without them, the sentence would read: Joe Bob Joe Bob and Bobby Jo all went to the fair. And that’s just plain silly.
- If you have two independent clauses in a sentence, you should insert a comma before the conjunction. (Conjunctions are words like and, but, or, for, nor, yet, and so.) (Independent clauses have a subject and a verb and can stand alone as a sentence.) Example: Joe, Bob, Joe Bob, and Bobby Jo all went to the fair, and Joe Bob and Bobbie Jo rode through the Tunnel of Love.
- When you have something called a parenthetical, which are phrases and words that aren’t necessary to the meaning of the sentence. These can occur anywhere in a sentence, and they’re always set apart by commas. Here’s an example of one at the beginning of the sentence: Because they’re engaged, Joe Bob and Bobbie Jo rode through the Tunnel of Love. Here’s one at the end: Joe Bob and Bobbie Jo rode through the Tunnel of Love, LOL! And here’s one in the middle: Joe Bob and Bobbie Jo, who are engaged, rode through the Tunnel of Love.
- In dialogue, if a “dialogue tag” is used. I know, I know. What’s a dialogue tag? Well, a dialogue tag is a phrase used to identify the speaker in dialogue. The most common of these is “said”. Example: Joe Bob said, “Let’s go to the fair!” Or, if the dialogue tag occurs in the middle of the spoken sentence, it’s completely set off by commas. Example: “Let’s go to the fair,” Joe Bob said, “so that Bobbie Jo and I can ride through the Tunnel of Love!” (Yes, there are exceptions, which will be addressed in a later, even more fascinating post on dialogue tags. I know you can hardly wait.)
No matter what your English teacher told you, DO NOT add a comma every time you’d pause when speaking. If your English teacher told you to do that, your English teacher was wrong.
Re-read whatever you’ve written before you send it out. Check specifically for commas; do you have too many? Too few? (True Fact: When I write, the comma fairy follows behind me, sprinkling those pesky little bits of punctuation throughout my text, whether they’re needed or not. By the time anyone sees what I’ve written, I’ve gone through with an M-16, slaying those bad boys.)
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, find a Beta Reader who is obsessive about commas. She may be a little strange, but she’s worth the trouble. I promise.
(By the way, if anyone wants to write the love story of Joe Bob and Bobby Jo, feel free. OR of Joe, Bob, Joe Bob, and Bobby Jo, if that’s how you roll. We’re all open-minded here.)