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Practical Tips for Using the Comma in Your Writing

Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.

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A comma is used to indicate a pause. The common advice to figure out where to place commas usually goes like this:

"Read the sentence aloud, as if to a child, and see where you use pauses."

This is good advice, however, when I tried this method I realized that different people pause at different places. This little difference in brain wiring often results in text being littered with commas at all sorts of places.

It's quite unfortunate because punctuation is used to add clarity, not confusion. However, the rules for using punctuation are sometimes so complex that it's just not worth spending the time to understand all of them. What's needed is a simple guide of practical rules that cover the most important use cases.

What follows is such a list of practical rules for when to use a comma. It is not a comprehensive list and is not meant to make your "comma usage" impeccable. But it will help you insert commas in all the important places and help make your writing clear and professional.

1. A comma is used to separate items in a list

I walked out of the grocery store with a bag full of oranges, bananas, tomatoes, and carrots.

Notice how the comma is used to separate the list of items placed in the bag. This is the most frequent reason to use a comma.

The comma after the last item, “tomatoes”, is optional. It is known as the Oxford Comma. Some people use it while others don’t. You can decide your usage style but either way, it is important to be consistent.

Here are a few more examples of using a comma to separate items in a list.

  1. I binge-watched three movies yesterday: Star Trek: The First Contact, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.
  2. Harry, Sally, and Mike are all coming to the movie tonight.
  3. I don’t mind insects and animals cohabiting my house, but I simply can’t stand cockroaches, mice, and fleas.

2. A comma is used to tack words at the beginning or the end of the sentence

It was hot and sunny at nine in the morning. However, the looming clouds on the horizon portended a wet evening.

Notice how the comma is used in the second sentence after “however”. Tacking “however” at the beginning of a sentence is a very common pattern. We follow it with a comma because the word is related but slightly tangential to the main idea of the sentence which is the likely fact that the looming clouds on the horizon portended rain in the evening.

It was most unbecoming for a gentleman to eat so loudly at such a solemn occasion, he thought.

In the example above, the main idea is how unbecoming it is for a gentleman to eat loudly on a solemn occasion. However, we tack the words “he thought” at the end of the sentence to indicate that this thought came to a person who is being referred to in the narration. The words “he thought” are related but tangential to the main idea. Therefore, they are preceded by a comma.

3. A comma is used to sandwich words in-between a sentence

In the previous example, we saw how to use a comma when words are tacked at the beginning or at the end of a sentence.

However, such words may also be sandwiched in the middle of a sentence. We use a comma in this case as well.

My new pet, a magnificent boxer, has a goofy and charming personality.

If you consider the flow of the example shown above, the speaker wants to say that their new pet has a goofy and charming personality. In its simplest form, this sentence could have been written like this:

My new pet has a goofy and magnificent personality.

This sentence above flows with just one thought. However, the writer wanted to add more information to the sentence. He wanted to tell the reader that his pet is “a magnificent boxer.” Therefore, he sandwiched the breed of the pet in between and the sentence.

My new pet, a magnificent boxer, has a goofy and charming personality.

The sandwiched part “a magnificent boxer” is put between commas. The part that is sandwiched is usually related but slightly tangential to the main thought being expressed in the sentence.

Here are a few more examples where a comma is used to sandwich a related but slightly tangential fact in a sentence:

  1. His wife, Emma, has a generous nature.
  2. Why should he, at the age of ninety-one, have to run from hospital to hospital in search of the covid vaccine? It is his right to have it administered to him at his house.
  3. She was a high-born lady, who despite her status, preferred to travel in the economy class with common people.

4. A comma is used for disambiguation

Let us look at a highly controversial sentence:

Let's eat Roger.

Well, the speaker is certainly not a cannibal. He was simply sitting with his old friend, Roger, and politely asked him to eat. His only fault was that he ate the comma before his meal.

He should have written:

Let's eat, Roger.

Sometimes, where you place the comma, can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Parag Shah 333

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