by Lori Freeland
The comma. It’s a scrappy little mark—that’s often the bane of an author’s writerly existence. With every clause, the question becomes, to comma, or not to comma?
As an editor, I’ve had quite a few clients tell me they tend to stick commas in wherever they “sound” like they should go. It’s a trend you’ll find even in professionally published manuscripts. My inner editor always wants to post a warning on these books. Caution: Be on the Lookout for Random Raining Commas Ahead.
On the flip side, I’ve had other clients tell me they have no idea where commas belong. So, they don’t use any. I’d post this warning on those books. Caution: Ambiguous Sentences Ahead. Navigate at Your Own Risk.
Considering that your average, everyday author doesn’t have a degree in English, what’s a conscientious writer to do? If English was your least favorite class <raises hand>, you might not be too hyped about the answer, but I’ll share it with you anyway.
Put in the time to learn the basic comma rules and the “whys” behind them. Or at least learn how and where to accurately look them up.
Side Note: All websites are not equal when it comes to correct grammar and punctuation. I’ll share some great sites at the end of this post. And don’t rely too heavily on spellcheck (now called “editor”) in Word. It doesn’t have a degree in English either.
Let’s start with the worst offender. Never, never, ever use a comma to separate the subject (noun) from the verb. When you do this, you’re breaking up the basic definition of a sentence.
What is a sentence? A sentence is a group of words with at least one subject (noun) and one verb that has a complete thought. Basically, a sentence doesn’t leave you hanging.
Correct: The coolest thing about a unicorn is its horn.
Incorrect: The coolest thing about a unicorn, is its horn.
The comma in the second example separates the first part of the sentence from the second. “The coolest thing about a unicorn” (is what?). And “is the horn” tells us nothing. Neither part makes sense alone. Both leave you hanging.
That’s going to be your biggest clue about where to add commas and where to leave them out. Tuck that information away for now, and let’s jump into some relevant definitions.
If this subheading is giving you nightmare-esque flashbacks to middle school English, no worries. Let’s take these one at a time.
A clause is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence
A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.
There. That wasn’t too bad, right?
A SUBJECT is simply a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.
A PREDICATE is simply a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.
And because it’s going to come up later, an OBJECT is simply a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.
Example: My sister (noun) drove (verb) a sleek black Porsche (object).
This is a simple example of WHO (noun) DID WHAT (verb) to WHAT (noun).
In case you were wondering, a complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one dependent clause, and a compound sentence has two independent clauses.
Sometimes a clause can stand on its own (when it’s independent). Other times it can’t (when it’s dependent).
Still confused? Read on!
What makes a clause independent or dependent? Think of clauses like small children. If they’re independent, they can get dressed and feed themselves without help from you. They can “stand alone.”
If they’re dependent, they can’t get dressed or feed themselves without help from you. They can’t “stand alone.” They’re depending on you for their survival.
If a sentence is independent, it doesn’t need help doing its job. If it's dependent, it’s depending on another part of the sentence to get the job done.
Hint: Remember, all clauses need a subject and a verb.
An independent clause can stand alone because it forms a complete thought.
If you “fuse” two independent clauses together, you’ll have a run-on sentence. It’s sort of like fusing two trains together—engine to caboose. Both engines want to “drive,” and that makes the “tracks” of your sentence hard to navigate.
Incorrect: The wind blew the branches swayed.
Notice the two subjects (wind/branches) and two verbs (blew/swayed). When you read this out loud, you’re not sure where one part ends and the other begins. You don’t get the proper pause that gives a reader clarity. And you also throw a stumbling block into the path of a smooth read.
You can fix that run-on sentence two ways—separate it into two sentences with a period or add a comma after a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).
Correct: The wind blew. The branches swayed.
Correct: The wind blew, and the branches swayed.
Side Note: This is an example of a compound sentence. It has two independent clauses connected by a conjunction (and).
Here are some examples with the other conjunctions.
A dependent clause can’t stand alone because it doesn’t form a complete thought.
Correct: The dog whined at the table while I was eating.
Incorrect: The dog whined at the table, while I was eating.
By adding the comma, you’re splitting up the sentence into two parts.
Incorrect: The dog whined at the table. While I was eating.
Splitting this up doesn’t work. The first part (The dog whined at the table) can stand alone. It has a subject (dog) and a verb (whined) and forms a complete thought—
—The second part (while I was eating) can’t stand alone. While I was eating what? It leaves us hanging and doesn’t form a complete thought. It’s depending on the first part of the sentence to make sense.
Why do we even care about “while I was eating” then? It adds relevant information to the first part of the sentence. It tells us what was happening while I was eating.
WATCH OUT FOR: Don’t automatically insert commas when you see a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).
Don’t put a comma after the main clause when a dependent clause follows it.
Correct: Mom said the road was closed and that I shouldn’t drive on it.
Incorrect: Mom said that the road was closed, and that I shouldn’t drive on it.
Why are these not two independent clauses? The main clause (Mom said the road was closed) is an independent clause in that it has a subject and a verb and forms a complete thought. But the context is lost without the dependent clause (and that I shouldn’t drive on it).
We need both parts to fully understand the meaning of the sentence. We need both parts because Mom said both things.
Exception: Use a comma if you’re going for an extreme contrast and want the reader to notice.
Correct: Dad was still quite upset that I was two hours late, even though I promised to come straight home.
Don’t freak out. Remember, a subject is just a noun, a predicate is just a verb, an object is just the noun receiving the action. And compound means more than one.
Don’t put a comma between two compound subjects. Watch for more than one noun doing the same action.
Correct: The cat on the street and the dog in the shelter are both looking for a forever home.
Incorrect: The cat on the street, and the dog in the shelter are both looking for a forever home.
Incorrect: The cat on the street, and the dog in the shelter, are both looking for a forever home.
Why? Neither “the cat on the street” or “the dog in the shelter” are complete thoughts. They’re compound subjects. And they both need the same thing—a home.
Don’t put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate. Don’t be put off by “compound predicate.” That just means that the subject (noun) is doing more than one thing.
Correct: We grabbed some books and coffee and began to study.
Incorrect: We grabbed some books and coffee, and began to study.
We (noun) did two things. We grabbed and studied.
Side Note: What would make the comma correct? If we add in another subject and make two independent clauses.
Correct: We grabbed some books and coffee, and we began to study.
The easiest way to look at introductory clauses is to think of them as stage setters. They set up the main clause. Kind of like the backstory in our books provides the setup for our characters and plot.
They tell us things like when and where and how and why things are happening.
They don’t come between or after commas, so we do consider them essential to the meaning of the sentence, and we don’t want to take them out.
Side Note: Don’t get caught up in the technicality of what each phrase below is called.
Helpful Hint: If you flip the sentence, don’t put a comma. You no longer have an introductory clause.
Correct: Because her phone died, she missed your call.
Correct: She missed your call because her phone died.
Incorrect: She missed your call, because her phone died.
By putting the comma before “because her phone died,” you’ve made those words nonessential. Except they aren’t, and we need them for the sentence to make sense. You can also look at that clause in terms of being dependent. It’s depending on the main clause in the sentence to make sense. It can’t stand alone.
It’s not only phrases that can be introductory. Single words can be too.
WELL, YES, NO, and HOWEVER should be followed by a comma.
And since we’re on the subject of those single introductory words, let’s take them a step further.
Words like HOWEVER, STILL, FURTHERMORE, and MEANWHILE create continuity and transition from one sentence to the next and should be followed by a comma.
Congratulations! You made it through the first set of crucial rules and no longer have to live in comma chaos. The more you use commas correctly, the more natural their placement will come. Pretty soon, your fingers will be typing commas on their own.
Stay tuned for the second part of this series. We’ll talk about what you do with essential and nonessential information in a sentence, commas with multiple adjectives, why you should care about that pesky Oxford comma, and more.
At the beginning of this post, I promised to share some of my favorite grammar sites.
Let’s discuss. I love to read your comments. What’s your biggest comma struggle? What are some things that helped you overcome your comma chaos? What are your favorite grammar references? Please share your comma tips and tricks below!
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An encourager at heart, author, editor, and writing coach Lori Freeland believes everyone has a story to tell. She’s presented multiple workshops at writer’s conferences across the country and writes everything from non-fiction to short stories to novels—YA to adult. When she’s not curled up with her husband drinking too much coffee and worrying about her kids, she loves to mess with the lives of the imaginary people living in her head.
You can find her young adult and contemporary romance at lorifreeland.com and her inspirational blog and writing tips at lafreeland.com. Her book, Where You Belong: a runaway series novella, is currently free on Kindle Unlimited.
A girl can run from her roots, but she can’t escape her heart.
Six years ago, after a practical joke gone wrong, Hendrix Marshall blew the single stoplight in the town of Runaway, Wisconsin, and never looked back. But when Grandpa Joe—retired hippie, Jimmy Hendrix devotee, and the man who raised her—ends up in the hospital, she reluctantly agrees to take a cab home. As long as she can keep the meter running. But then she comes heel-to-boot with Alexander Ryland—former best friend, sometimes nemesis, always secret crush. And his ocean-blue eyes still have the power to launch cartwheels in her belly. Too bad his freestyle attitude makes her certifiable. He’s the reason she left. He won’t be the reason she stays. Even if he’s determined to collect interest on the kiss she’s owed him for the last ten years.
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Yowzers! This is like a grammar primer with all the stuff that didn't make sense the first time around. Thanks a bunch, Lori. I don't make a massive amount of comma mistakes, but I don't do it entirely correctly either. Mostly, when I'm not sure, I do it by ear.
Thank you! I used to hate grammar. Lol. But now I'm working on getting a degree in Nerd, and I kind of love it.
Wow. Love this intro to Where You Belong!
While teaching English to college kids, I let comma rules reduce to two:
1. A pause does not a comma make.
2. If in doubt, leave it out.
Thank you about my intro! Commas can be so confusing, can't they? Simple rules are good 🙂
I just recently decided to stop guessing and learn the rules about commas once and for all. Thanks for confirming that I learned correctly!
Once you learn and keep doing it (or keep looking it up, which was me), it becomes so much easier.
I still like Strunk and White's take on punctuation.
Strunk and White is good. But I love Chicago Manual of Style online for the ease and quickness of looking things up.
Thank you for the great explanation and links!
I tend to either be the comma queen or not use enough. I am also guilty of slapping one in where it "sounds" right.
Your post will help.
Sometimes where it "sounds right" is right. But not always. Once you figure out the basic rules, they make sense. It's taken me a long time. And . . . I still sometimes look things up. It's good to have a go-to grammar place when in doubt.
Yikes! I think I usually get it right, but I know I do make mistakes. (2 independent clauses!)
This is a post to file in an easily accessible place to refer to when editing. Many thanks. Commas are pesky little things.
Do you think you could do a post on colons and semicolons at some time, please.
I am planning on doing a whole series on punctuation!
Excellent summary! Since this is Part I, I assume you will be addressing the debate regarding the Oxford comma in your next post. Personally, I am an Oxford devotee because it eliminates confusion. Items in a series without the benefit of the Oxford comma can result in some hilarious implications. I have never understood why this became an issue in the first place. Looking forward to your next post!
Oh, yes! I am an Oxford comma girl all the way. And I'll fight for it every single time. Lol.
Love, love these writing craft posts. And Lori, this one was especially good because of your easy-to-understand way of explaining. Thanks! Can't wait for your second part.
Thank you! I love easy-to-understand things too.
Former English teacher here. Excellent explanations!
I am old enough to have learned grammar and punctuation back in the day when we diagrammed sentences. Some grammar rules have changed, including some relating to commas. Putting a comma after an opening prepositional phrase was frowned upon. My biggest complaint right now is the use of "most/more importantly" followed by a comma. Where writers get the notion you can simply add an "ly" to important and follow it with a comma to indicate that something is most important or more important than something else? Unlike "hopefully" which replaces an awkward phrase: it is to be hoped, "importantly" just turns a comparative into a pseudo adverb where no adverb is called for.
Oh my gosh! I used to hate diagramming sentences so much. But I was grateful for all that practice later 🙂
Thank you so much! I’m an instinctive comma user. I always made As in English without learning the rules. My lack of knowledge has caught up with me! Your succinct explanations will help. Maybe I’m not to old to memorize a thing or two.
We're never too old to learn new things. I'm preaching to myself 🙂
So helpful, thank you!
One question about this sentence, "In case you were wondering, a complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one independent clause, and a compound sentence has two independent clauses." Doesn't a complex sentence need a mix of independent and dependent clauses?
Yes! That was a typo that is being fixed. Even editors need editors. Lol. Great catch 🙂 Thank you.
Sometimes even I get in doubt. It helps me to read it out loud, and "listen" for the pause. It sounds weird, but it actually helps (and is pretty accurate).
Yes, it can be accurate to "listen." But when you get into complex sentences, that gets tricky.
Hi guys! There was a type (my fault). But it's fixed. Proof that even an editor needs an editor 🙂
It used to read this:
In case you were wondering, a complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one independent clause, and a compound sentence has two independent clauses.
It should read:
In case you were wondering, a complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one DEPENDENT clause, and a compound sentence has two independent clauses.
Wow, Lori! This was helpful. Thank you! And big hug.
I am always fighting with Grammarly over my commas. And admittedly, I am probably wrong. I have never been able to follow the old saw just put a comma in where you breathe. Ha! Because I have asthma. I breathe whenever I run out of air, often in the middle of an otherwise perfect comma-less sentence.
"I have never been able to follow the old saw just put a comma in where you breathe. Ha! Because I have asthma." <-- Hahahahaha! I love a good twisted sense of humor. 🙂
That made me laugh. Hugs back to you!
Well, this is just damned magnificent. Love this, my fellow word nerd. Sharing!
Commas are not my weakness. This a great guide.
Thank you ?
Thanks for this informative post! And I'm happy to hear that you use the Oxford comma. Many say it isn't necessary, but I need to put it in or it isn't right to me. It still jars me when I read a sentence where it isn't used.
This guide is a keeper. Please, please talk about comma splices in a future column. They're my fave!
[…] back to answering the question, to comma, or not to comma? If you missed Part 1, check it out here. To Comma, or Not to Comma. In this section, we’ll cover essential and nonessential information in a sentence and how that […]