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Default Commas


These separate clauses, phrases or items in a series, or indicate a pause in a sentence. They are a less complete separation than other marks.

Whatever is eating the garbage, digging up the flowers, and knocking down the bird feeders has to be stopped. (separation of clauses)

The hungry boy ate cake, popcorn, peanuts, and a slice of watermelon. (items in series)

Well, I knew it just wasn't the same. (pause in sentence)

Be aware of comma splices, or the improper use of a comma to join two independent clauses.

When written in the narrative,the sentence I can't believe we didn't think of this before, it's such an easy solution contains a comma splice. You could break these up into two sentences with a period (I can't believe we didn't think of this before. It's such an easy solution) or put a semicolon between them (I can't believe we didn't think of this before; it's such an easy solution).

* * * * *

(More than you ever wanted to know)

Probably the two most commonly used pieces of punctuation are full stops (also known as periods) and commas. Since full stops are used to denote the end of a sentence, there is little that can go wrong, but the poor comma is sorely abused. So how does one know when and where to use a comma? Read on!

The primary purpose of the comma is to indicate a pause. There are various reasons why one might need to pause: for co-ordinate clauses, subordinate clauses, or to denote an unusual word order. Adjectives, lists, direct speech, and numbers also require commas. Grammatically separated sentences, identifying expressions, long subjects, and indirect speech do not require commas, but we will look at those as well since it helps us to know where and when to insert that almighty squiggle.

1. Co-ordinate Clauses
A co-ordinate clause is one of two or more clauses in a sentence having equal status, and introduced by a co-ordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but or or).

He had only a few pennies in his pocket, but he would never have dreamt of stealing food from the market stalls.

In cases where both clauses are short, the comma is not used.

She was angry but Peter didn’t care.

2. Subordinate Clauses
A subordinate clause has both a noun and a verb, but depends on the rest of the sentence for its meaning.

If you ever visit Bedlam, give me a call.

If you ever visit Bedlam has both a noun (you) and a verb (visit) but cannot stand alone as a sentence because it doesn’t make sense. Similarly,

Because I didn’t turn up, the whole world fell to pieces.

also begins with a subordinate clause, and so requires a comma to separate the subordinate (dependent) clause from the primary (independent) clause.

3. Unusual Word Order
Sometimes when we write, we interject words or phrases in places where they interrupt the normal flow.

The aliens were, hard though it is to believe, in awe of the old man’s beard.

Because the phrase hard though it is to believe interrupts the normal progression of the sentence, it needs to be offset with commas to help the reader comprehend the sentence.

If you insert a comment about the subject of your sentence, this also needs to be offset by commas.

Bop, the smallest alien, was shoved into the cannon first.

Although it is often possible to rephrase these sentences to avoid the unusual word order, writers need to use a variety of sentence structures to keep their writing from sounding flat. So insert words and phrases, but remember to use commas.

4. Adjectives
Commas are used to separate adjectives that come after be and other link verbs (i.e. feel, look, seem).

The ghoul was tall, thin, and incredibly smelly.

Commas are also used between adjectives when the information they give is related:

The minister was a pompous, arrogant, blustering, old fool.

Commas are sometimes dropped between short adjectives, for example:

His foot sank into the dark wet moss.

But it would be equally correct to write:

His foot sank into the dark, wet moss.

5. Lists
Commas are used to separate items in a list.

The cardboard suitcase contained a plastic comb, a washcloth, and a broken tennis racquet.

Janet bought a mop, a lampshade, and an electric chain saw at the hardware store.

If your list contains descriptions of each item, you might find that semi colons work better. (See our article on semi colons for an example of this.)

6. Direct Speech
Commas are used to separate the reporting expression, or speech tag, from the actual piece of direct speech.

"This year," Sally said, "I’ve decided to go to Mars."
Calvin said, "My snowman looks like a mutant."

7. Numbers
Commas are used to divide large numbers into groups of three figures, by separating thousands and millions, to make them easier to read.

The North Sea is 520,000 square kilometres.
The Sahara Desert is approximately 3,320,000 square miles in area.

The important thing to remember about commas is that they are meant to enhance the flow of the sentence by telling the reader when to pause. Using too many commas, and in the wrong places, will disrupt your writing and the reader’s comprehension. Using too few can leave your reader puzzling over your exact meaning.

The following are examples of places where we do not use commas.

1. Grammatically Separate Sentences (Comma Splice)
We do not use a comma to link two grammatically separate sentences. Instead, these are separated by a full stop, or linked by a semi colon. When you use a comma instead of a full stop or a semi colon, it is called a comma splice.

The small dog was noisier, on the other hand, the large one snored.

The small dog was noisier. On the other hand, the large one snored.


The small dog was noisier; on the other hand, the large one snored.

2. Identifying Expressions
When a noun is followed by an identifying expression, commas are not used. An identifying expression is a descriptive phrase that defines who or what the subject is.

Compare the two sentences in the following example.

The woman who was dressed all in black disappeared down a side alley.
Veronica, who was dressed all in black, disappeared down a side alley.

In the first sentence, the phrase who was dressed all in black is used to identify the unnamed woman. The entire thing is called a noun phrase, and is not separated by commas.

In the second sentence, the phrase who was dressed all in black does not identify the woman because we already have her name, Veronica. Because the phrase is now used to describe Veronica, we offset it with commas.

3. Long Subjects
Long subjects are noun phrases used as the subject of the sentence. They are similar to nouns followed by identifying expressions, and we generally do not place a comma after these.

The Representative from the Intergalactic Federation was late.

The Representative from the Intergalactic Federation, was late.

Long subjects can be used for objects or things as well.

What he wanted most of all could never happen.
The delivery van from the supermarket arrived early.

In the above sentences, What he wanted most of all, and The delivery van from the supermarket are both long subjects or noun phrases.

4. Indirect Speech (Reported Speech)
Indirect speech, sometimes called reported speech, is a form of speech used to relate what another person has said, and often involves a change of tense. The following shows an example of direct speech, followed by indirect speech:

Direct Speech:
"I’m going to build a huge bonfire," said Dan.

Indirect Speech:
Dan said that he would build a huge bonfire.

In the example with direct speech, we use a comma to separate what Dan actually says from the speech tag that is used to attribute his words. In the example with indirect speech, we do not use a comma because it would interrupt the natural flow of the sentence.

- Q Wands

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Last edited by Q Wands; 02-04-2009 at 02:17 AM..
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