By Lori Freeland
Are you a comma criminal? Do you steal commas from places where they really need to stay? Or maybe you’re a comma enthusiast and stick them in wherever you “feel” they need to be? If you said yes to one or both, you’re not alone. When it comes to commas, most people don’t go by any solid rules. Not only can that make your sentence structure inconsistent, it can confuse your readers about what you’re trying to say.
It’s comma time again. I know. Try to contain your groans. We’re almost done! In this fourth part of the series, we’ll talk about pauses, sentence clarification, places, people, dates, words at the end of a sentence, and dialogue. And yes, it’s going to be easier than it sounds. Once you get the hang of commas, using them will come more naturally. I promise.
Sometimes, even if we follow the comma rules, the meaning of words in a sentence can be unclear or need some contrast. Especially when those words fall at the end.
Incorrect: He’s just being quiet silly.
Correct: He’s just being quiet, silly.
Incorrect: He was only distracted not stupid.
Correct: He was only distracted, not stupid.
Incorrect: Our robotic math professor seemed different today almost human.
Correct: Our robotic math professor seemed different today, almost human.
Incorrect: That’s John’s new car isn’t it?
Correct: That’s John’s new car, isn’t it?
Commas come in handy if there’s ever an issue with understanding what a sentence means.
Incorrect: Jeremy gestured at the herd of stampeding horses yelling wildly.
Correct: Jeremy gestured at the herd of stampeding horses, yelling loudly.
Use commas to set off specific geographical places and addresses, people’s titles, and dates.
Yes, you need a comma after the state too if it’s not at the end of the sentence. The odd way it looks throws many people off.
Exception: There is no comma with just the month and year—unless the date is used an opening clause.
Just like we no longer type that extra space after a period, we can scratch that comma before too, also, and either, providing the words come at the end of a sentence and the meaning is clear.
Correct: Keep the comma.
Correct: Ditch the comma.
Finally, something most writers are familiar with—dialogue. There’s a simple rule here. We always use commas to set off dialogue. That’s it.
But remember dialogue means what your characters say out loud. It’s external. We’re not talking about the thoughts inside their heads. That’s internal and doesn’t need quotes either. See my post on Dive Deep into Dialogue for, well, a deeper dive into dialogue.
Incorrect: Jean said I’m not hungry. / I’m not hungry Jean said.
Correct: “I’m not hungry,” Jean said. /Jean said, “I’m not hungry.”
Incorrect: To George Lucas was the father of Star Wars.
Because the two names, George and Lucas, usually belong together, we read them as if they are together. But that’s not what the writer of this sentence meant.
Correct: To George, Lucas was the father of Star Wars.
We’re done. You made it! I hope you walked away from this comma series with some concrete takeaways. I’d love to hear them. What have you struggled with? What did you learn? Do you have any comma advice to share? And what other punctuation would you like me to cover? I love requests as much as I love your comments.
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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.
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