Writers in the Storm

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December 17, 2021

To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 2)

by Lori Freeland

Image for To Comma, or not to comma shows the title over the photograph of a man's hand holding a pen and editing a manuscript.

Welcome to comma central, where we’re talking about all things comma. Among most writers, you’ll find a consensus when it comes to this tiny, ambiguous mark. They don’t like it. It’s too confusing. When do you use it? Where do you use it? Why do you use it? And who even cares, really?

Trust me, as a writer, you do!

So let’s get 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 plays into when and where you add in commas or leave them out.     

But first, a quick review.

Crucial Definitions

A CLAUSE is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence.

Or think of it this way. A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.

SUBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.

A PREDICATE is a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.

An OBJECT is a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.

Here’s an example.

Mr. Jones (noun) walked (verb) his yippy dog (object) at the crack of dawn.

Nonessential vs Essential Information

When it comes to your sentence, what information can you afford to lose and what information do you have to keep? How do you figure it out? And what do you do once you know?

The quick answer is:

  • nonessential information is the part of a sentence you can do without. 
  • essential information is the part of a sentence you can’t do without. 

Nonessential Information:

Let’s start with nonessential information—the parts of a sentence you can do without. That doesn’t mean we’re putting those words on the chopping block. It just means we need to set them off with commas.

What we put inside commas or after a comma is usually considered NONESSENTIAL information. It isn’t needed to decipher the meaning of the sentence.

In the examples below, the bolded words are nonessential.

Inside Commas: The book on the shelf, which is exciting, is the one you should read next.

After a Comma: The weather in Texas is hot, which I really don’t like.

Do you see how the bolded information doesn’t really matter when it comes to understanding the sentence? The important part the author is trying to get across is that it’s hot in Texas.

The key point to note here is this. If we were to take out anything between the commas or after the comma, the sentence still has to be grammatically correct and make sense. It has to do both.

Nonessential words are red shirts. Like in the original Star Trek. Treat what’s in between commas of after a comma as a red shirt—an expendable part of the team, usually the first to die. At any time, I could sacrifice it without losing a crucial member of the sentence squad.

Inside Commas: A week off for vacation, I think, is great.

After a Comma: A week off for vacation is great, I think.

Removing “I think” in either instance above changes nothing grammatically or in terms of what each sentence means.

The red-shirt idea works for clauses, phrases, and single words too. Any of the words in bold below can be deleted and still keep the sentence grammatically correct without changing the essence of what I want the sentence to mean.

  • Clause: Next October, which is my favorite month, works for our writing retreat.
  • Phrase: You’re a great guy. Your brother, sad to say, I could do without.
  • Word: I usually like my English teacher. Today, however, I do not.

Is It Needed or Not Needed?

Purdue Owl has put together a list of questions to help you figure out whether information is needed or not needed for sentence clarity. 

  1. If you leave out the clause, phrase, or word, does the sentence still make sense?
  2. Does the clause, phrase, or word interrupt the flow of words in the original sentence?
  3. If you move the element to a different position in the sentence, does the sentence still make sense?

If you answer “yes” to any of the above, the clause, phrase, or word is nonessential and should be set off with commas.

Now that we’ve said all of this and you have a better idea of what the nonessential parts of a sentence are, what do you do with your new knowledge?

  • Look for places to add commas.
  • Look for places to remove commas.

That’s all.

IMPORTANT: This DOES NOT mean you should delete everything you deem nonessential. It DOES mean you should put commas around everything you deem nonessential.

However, if you’re looking for ways to tighten your WIP and really don’t need that information, deleting unneeded words and phrases here and there is a great place to start.

But please consider things like sentence flow, mood, and character voice before you start dismembering your manuscript.  

As we jump into essential information, keep in mind that the comma is our “clue” as readers and writers to identify what we don’t need.

But watch out for the EXCEPTION.

If there’s a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet), it tells us we need the information that follows the comma(s). Below, what comes after the word in bold is considered essential information. You need it. We’ll dive into this a little later.

Coordinating Conjunction: The weather in Texas is hot, and I refuse to move there.

Essential Information:

image of colorful commas illustrating a post by Lori Freeland called to comma, or to not to comma

Now that we know what nonessential information is and how to handle it, what do we do with essential information? We don’t put it between or after commas.

Correct: We can order take out if you pay.

Incorrect: We can order take out, if you pay.

Why? “We can order take out” makes sense. Yet if we stop there, we’re missing vital information that changes our understanding of the sentence.

“If you pay” is essential to the meaning. Think of it this way. I’m broke. And we can’t order out if you’re not paying. Or I’m cheap, and I won’t spend my money. Or maybe I just don’t like you, and I’m saving my money for something better than bringing you dinner.

Correct: The dress you loaned me was too tight.

Incorrect: The dress, you loaned me, was too tight.

Correct: The puppy inside the dog pen is my first choice.

Incorrect: The puppy, inside the dog pen, is my first choice.

If you made any of the words in bold above fair game to delete—by putting them between commas or after a comma—we won’t know which dress or which puppy you’re talking about. We need those descriptive phrases. 

Here are a few more.

Correct: People who steal usually get caught.

Incorrect: People, who steal, usually get caught.

Correct: The boy standing over there is cute.

Incorrect: The boy, standing over there, is cute.

Again, without the words in bold, we won’t know which “people” or which “boy.” 

“That” Clauses after a Noun

Do not put commas around or before clauses that start with “that” and follow a noun. Any words after “that,” we need. Check out the words in bold.   

Correct: The painting that you made me always makes me smile.

Incorrect: The painting, that you made me, always makes me smile.

Why? It’s a specific painting that makes me cry.  

“That” Clauses after a Verb that Expresses Mental Action

Correct: My daughter hopes that she will be able to find a new job.

Incorrect: My daughter hopes, that she will be able to find a new job.

Why? If you take the bold part out, it leaves a generic “My daughter hopes.” Hopes for what?

Commas with Names

Is a person’s name essential or nonessential in a sentence like this?

My sister, Rachel, is pretty but mean.

It depends. How many sisters do you have? If you only have one sister, her name is nonessential, and we can keep it inside the commas. We know exactly who you’re referring to.

If you have eight sisters—or just more than one—her name is essential. We want to remove the commas. It would be unfair to slander a perfectly nice sister.   

My sister Rachel is pretty but mean.

Whew! We’re done. You made it through the comma maze. We’ve dissected a lot of information in Part 2 of this series. If you feel like you’re in a comma coma, no worries. Go back and grab a chunk of each section to gnaw on for a while. And practice writing your own examples. Use mine and change up the words. Most of us remember things best when we get handsy with them. 

Stay tuned for the third part of this series. We’ll talk about using commas with multiple adjectives—when do you, when don’t you?—and that dratted Oxford comma too.     

In the meantime, here are some of my favorite grammar sites.

  • My favorite go-to for commas is Purdue Owl, where they break down the basic comma rules into a quick guide as well as an extended guide. You can check them out here. Quick Comma Rules and Extended Comma Rules.

You can also find great information at:

Let’s discuss in the comments. Do you have a hard time figuring out what’s nonessential and essential in your sentences? What clues do you use to add or remove commas? Please share your favorite grammar references and your comma tips and tricks below!

* * * * * *

About Lori

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. 


Where You Belong

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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21 comments on “To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 2)”

  1. Hi Lori,
    I love the clear examples. This made my inner grammarian smile, but more importantly, was a good reminder of how the tiny comma can change the sentence meaning in big ways.
    Thanks!

    Kris

  2. I loved this post. As I went down through, I felt comfortable with the rules, not to say I don't make a lot of mistakes when I write. Oh how I do. I missed a lot of school during the period when detailed grammar was taught and went to three different junior high schools in three years. The last example, though, the one with the sisters, was news to me. I'd have placed the name between commas in both cases. I'm not sure about my own motivation, though. It could be that if I thought the name unessential that I would've left it out and never thought about including it. Thank you, most of all, for making me reexamine what I do.

    1. I had to learn the name rules when it comes to commas also. A lot of these posts are coming out of me having to learn where to find solid answers so I can be consistent as an editor. When in doubt, I always look things up. I have a comma cheat sheet as well just for me 🙂

  3. This post, and part 1, are posts I will keep handy while editing. Commas are my kryptonite. I have blamed the run-on sentences used in nursing notes during my long career. However, I think it's more of a habit to put a comma where I pause to think. Once they're placed, they are invisible to me. Thanks for clear explanations and examples.

    1. People often stick commas where they "feel" a pause should be in the sentence. Sometimes that's accurate. But that natural pause doesn't always follow the grammar rules. It would be much easier if it did!

  4. Nice job. And you made it clear without having to mention consuming Grandma. I find fewer commas essential (we don't put commas on some lists any more because they are clear without, and look weird with too many), but the habit of leaving out essential commas - derived from chatspeak and not having the comma on the front page of the keyboard for your thumbs - is driving me crazy: I have to stop and parse all the time.

    As I've told my children, if a text purporting to come from me has certain types of grammatical errors (especially commas), they should know I'm being held for ransom.

    1. I tell my kids the exact same thing! In fact, when they were younger, one kid would text another from my phone just to see what the reaction would be. They always knew it wasn't from me--because it wasn't grammatically correct. Lol.

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