by Lori Freeland
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.
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.
A 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.
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:
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.
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.
Purdue Owl has put together a list of questions to help you figure out whether information is needed or not needed for sentence clarity.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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!
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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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