Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
June 17, 2022

To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 4)

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.

Have you missed any of the first three installments? No worries. Click on the links below to catch up. Here’s a quick guide if you’re looking for something specific.

  • To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 1): Part 1 covers general comma abuse, dependent and  independent clauses, plus everything else you thought you didn’t need to know about sentences, clauses, and predicates.

Take a Pause

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.

This literally means he’s being “quiet silly.” Which isn’t really a thing.

Correct: He’s just being quiet, silly.  

Incorrect: He was only distracted not stupid.

Correct: He was only distracted, not stupid.

As a general rule, use a comma before “not” at the end of a sentence.

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?

Sentence Clarification

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.

Above, the horses are yelling wildly, not Jeremy. But with a comma added in the right place below, it becomes clear that Jeremy is the one yelling.

Correct: Jeremy gestured at the herd of stampeding horses, yelling loudly.

Places, People, Dates

Use commas to set off specific geographical places and addresses, people’s titles, and dates.

Examples of Places:

  • Dallas, Texas, is where I’m from.
  • I used to live in Madison, Wisconsin, before I moved.
  • My sister lives at 676 Maple Lane, Plano, Texas.

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.

Examples of Titles:

  • My primary care doctor is Glenda Green, MD.
  • Glenda Green, MD, is my primary care doctor.

Examples of Dates:

  • September 11, 2001, is a date no one will ever forget.
  • May 18, 1943, was the day my mom was born.

Yes, you need a comma after the year too. Even though it seems weird.  

Exception: There is no comma with just the month and year—unless the date is used an opening clause.

  • I married my husband January 1991.
  • In January 1991, I married my husband. 

TOO, ALSO, EITHER at the end of a sentence

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.

  • I, too, like fruit.
  • I, also, like fruit.

Correct: Ditch the comma.

  • I like fruit too.
  • I like also.
  • I don’t like fruit either.

Dialogue

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.”

A Final Hint

Use commas when your reader will be confused without them.

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.

Looking for more help? Check out my favorite grammar sites.

  • My favorite go-to or 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.

But you can also find great information at:

* * * * * *

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. 

Leave a Reply

18 comments on “To Comma, or Not to Comma (Part 4)”

  1. I'm in the middle of final revisions on my memoir, so this is perfect timing, Lori. One thing I'm not clear about (and I apologize if I missed it here or in your earlier posts) is to comma or not after prepositions like but and so at the beginning of a sentence. But he was late. But, he was late. So I dumped him. So, I dumped him. Which is correct?

    1. Hi Karen!
      It used to be correct to put a comma after words like "but" and "and" in the beginning of a sentence. Now, just like we don't use a comma before "too" at the end of a sentence, we don't use the comma with most conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence anymore. Mostly because they're not really acting as conjunctions at that point. They're more conversational.

      In your example, we wouldn't put a comma after "but." (But he was late)

      If the conjunction is in the second part of a sentence (I was early, but he was late), the comma would be there if the second clause is independent from the first. The simple way to look for this is to ask, does the clause after the conjunction have a subject. In "I was early, but he was late," there is a second subject, "he." And you need a comma. Part I of the commas series goes into greater detail.

      "So" is a little different. It depends on clarity and the way you're using it. If "so" needs to be set off for the meaning of the sentence to be clear, use a comma. (Ask yourself if you need that pause the comma would bring) If it needs NOT to be set off for the meaning of the sentence to be clear, don't use a comma. In your case, I would say no comma. "So I dumped him." Unless you mean: "So . . . I dumped him." And you had a whole list of reasons why before that sentence.

      HERE'S WHAT THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE SAID WHEN SOMEONE POSTED THE QUESTION:

      Q. I’m editing a transcript, and our department’s lead editor is giving me some trouble. We’re suffering over the word so. Under what circumstances can one put a comma after so? For example, in this transcript, a woman says: “So great answer.” Is so functioning conjunctively here, or can it be treated as an interjection? And what, if anything, does that mean for comma placement?

      A. Is there a recording, or did someone actually hear the woman speak? To deduce the part of speech, you have to know the intonation and pacing. Was the speaker referring to a “so great answer” with no break between so and great? Or did she say “so, [pause] great answer!”? The first use is adverbial (so modifies great) and would not take a comma, whereas the second is a kind of conjunction (an introductory particle) after which a comma would be helpful in indicating a pause. An ellipsis or dash might be even better. But if you don’t have a recording, there’s no way to decide the punctuation, unless you can guess from the context.

      Hope that helps!

      Facebook Link Twitter Link

  2. Lori, I truly need this series on commas. I tend to waver between not using enough to being the Comma Queen.
    Thank you for the super helpful posts.

  3. Well, I learned that if 'too'and 'also' come at the end of a sentence you don't use a comma. And to carefully read a sentence to make sure it means what you think it does, like the last ones in your examples.
    I did a beta read for one writer who always put the comma in dialogue outside the speech marks. For example, "I am going to town", Mary said.
    When I pointed out that this was wrong, he replied, "That's the way I do it and I 'm not changing." Or words to that effect. I've not read any other books of his as I found it irritating.
    My personal opinion is to try to get things right. I don't believe we lose readers by using correct grammar, but we certainly will by using it incorrectly.

    1. I love that you said this: I don't believe we lose readers by using correct grammar, but we certainly will by using it incorrectly.

      I agree!

      It can be frustrating when people say, "I don't care what the correct way it, I'm doing it my way." At that point, I'm with you. I'm not reading anymore.

  4. In a separate context, the use of a comma can be different in poetry. I will throw in a comma when I want a reader to pause, or when I want a sudden jar in the flow of a poem. Thank you for this guidance. It will help some of the bad habits I've taken into my fiction writing.

  5. I have to admit it, I mostly do commas by ear...and you have taught me that's a bad plan! I really really appreciate this series!

    I struggle with things like commas with dates and when to set off the name. Like, "A purple swamp creature, Commaroguius, terrorized all the visitors to Grammar Lake." I know to set off the name there. But sometimes (usually in dialogue) the name comma rules get wonky.

    So, I just sigh and say, "That's why you hire a proofreader."

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts

Search

WITS Team

Categories

Archives

Copyright © 2022 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved