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It’s now time to delve into commas. This little turd of punctuation is probably the most misinterpreted thing in the universe.
The reason behind the misinterpretation is that there are really a great many variables when it comes to current comma usage in writing. Some of it boils down to style and personal preference, and some of it boils down to good practice and the clarification of given information; keep in mind that there are several versions of the English language and even more styles of writing and editing.
That said; the first thing I want to do is guide everyone over to Purdue Owl. This is my go-to site; when I’m in doubt, I check out Purdue Owl, and apply the concepts provided.
Now, it is mandatory you understand that absolutely, under no circumstance, is a comma ever used to indicate a pause in speech. Such an idea is completely erroneous. First of all, it is not a writer’s or editor’s job to tell a reader when to pause in speech or mental dictation. Should such a situation arise, and it will in dialogue, the pause is indicated by the ellipses, or perhaps even the prose: he paused before continuing. If you doubt me, I want you to think about William Shatner, Matthew Perry, and Christopher Walken; they all speak perfect English, or at least American English, yet they all have their own, very discernible, and easily recognizable, speech pattern.
Do you think they place commas in different places than you or I because they pause in different places, accentuate other words, or elongate words in their own, weird way? No! The comma is used in sentence structure and information presentation, not pacing of speech. Furthermore, everyone takes a breath at different intervals and throughout a variety of situations. This is actually how voice recognition software works; people can mimic the sound of someone else’s voice, but not the breathing patterns, which result in different people pausing their speech at different times. Moreover, when a person is distressed, frightened, out of breath, happy, or angry, their breathing patterns shift, and their timed pauses change, but not the placing of commas in written word.
Imagine that you want to convey a series of distressed thoughts. Do you suddenly abandon punctuation in order to elicit the feel of words strung together rapidly? No. In order to achieve such a feel, you employ short sentences, words of fewer syllables, and less complex ideas within each paragraph; it is an art, to be certain.
Finally, on top of all this, some people, like the Micro Machine spokesman, and myself, for that matter, tend to speak like a machine gun, without ever stopping to take a breath, not even at the end of a sentence; so what does that mean? Does it mean that when I write, I don’t use commas or even periods? That’s obviously not the case, because, again, commas, and all punctuation, are used to clarify information, not set a pace (with the exception of the ellipsis, which is the only punctuation used to identify such a thing…ever).
So, when are commas used?
Well, there are some very basic rules and guidelines, but a great deal of punctuation has been cut from modern writing; people aren’t stupid, and for the most part, we can omit some of the commas. Not sure how accurate I am? Go and check out Elizabethan writing—commas everywhere!
Without going into the rules, since you can view them on Purdue Owl, we’ll just touch on some of the basics.
He went to the store and bought milk, eggs, bread, and juice.
In the above example, commas are used to separate a list of nouns, a list of things. It is absolutely incorrect to imply that one pauses between each item on the list; I certainly don’t pause when I read the list out loud, yet the commas are required to “break up” the list. Let’s look at a slightly different example:
“What did you buy,” John asked.
“Uh, let’s see; milk, beer, bread, waffles, corn, juice, raisins…yeah.”
The above sentences are very real, in that people do speak that way, and although you might pause between each item, I didn’t; the only time I paused was between raisins and yeah, hence the ellipsis. It’s important to state that every single comma above is required.
A comma is required after buy because it is the end of dialogue, yet the sentence in and of itself is not over until the word asked. What did you buy, John asked, sounds to the ear very different than, what did you buy…John asked. If you pause between buy and John, that’s your prerogative, but the comma is not placed there to inform you, the reader, that a pause must take place.
The comma after uh is required, not because of a pause in speech to indicate thought, but because uh is a sort of non-word separate from the main clause. Then, the rest of the commas “break up” a list of things. Let’s look at it without the commas:
“What did you buy” John asked.
“Uh let’s see; milk beer bread waffles corn juice raisins…yeah.”
Does the above example provide different information? No, it doesn’t, but if we didn’t use commas there then we are forced to omit commas of similar situations. Furthermore, in the event that one wishes to elicit the feel of rapid speech, one doesn’t simply omit the commas of the list, one states, in prose, that the person spoke rapidly.
“Uh, let’s see,” he then rattled off, “milk, beer, bread, waffles, corn, juice, raisins, yeah.”
Let’s view another example:
At the store, Peggy ran into Sue Joe Betty Mike Meg and Olaf.
In the above example, it becomes evident that a comma is required to “break up” the list of names.
In the parking lot, there were many cars bikes trucks scooters and buses.
Again, we need to “break up” the list of things, and if we’re going to do it with the list of names and the list of vehicles then we have to remain consistent and do so with the list of items as in what was bought at the store in the previous example.
At the store, Peggy ran into Sue, Joe, Betty, Mike, Meg, and Olaf.
In the parking lot, there were many cars, bikes, trucks, scooters, and buses.
Let’s look at another kind of list:
John was an athlete. He was tall muscular lean fit and quick on his feet.
I think we can all agree that the list of descriptive words must be “broken up”. (Before you call me out, yes, the period at the end of the preceding sentence belongs outside the quotation marks because I’m referencing a colloquialism and not employing dialogue.)
John was an athlete. He was tall, muscular, lean, fit, and quick on his feet.
That’s the appropriate way to employ the comma for that particular list, but there are other kinds of lists, other kinds of words.
She was an awe inspiring woman.
In the above case, awe inspiring are two words that function as a single idea and “breaking them up” doesn’t work.
She was an awe, inspiring woman.
That’s wrong; awe does not describe the woman even though inspiring does.
She was an inspiring, driven woman.
In the above case, the comma works, but it isn’t really required. This is a case of predilection.
She was an inspiring driven woman.
That sentence works. The comma is not required to clarify any information, and there aren’t so many descriptive words as to create a list. Generally, a list will have three or more items, but an argument can be made that the comma is useful. Let’s see something a little different:
He bought milk bread.
Is this referring to a kind of bread, milk bread, like rye bread? No, I mean milk and bread.
He bought milk, bread.
That isn’t right either.
He bought milk and bread.
That’s correct, and I point this out because the other sentence, she was an inspiring driven woman, can also be written as: she was an inspiring and driven woman. There are instances when a comma takes the place of a conjunction.
He bought milk and beer and bread and waffles and juice.
That sentence is correct. No commas are required because the appropriate conjunction has been implemented between each thing to “break up” the list, but that’s ugly writing, and no one talks that way, so we use commas to omit the conjunction, smooth the writing, and clarify the information. Now, one kind of optional comma is one you see me use all the time:
Yesterday, he went to the store.
The above sentence has a comma that separates the restrictive element: yesterday. If the comma is omitted, the meaning of the sentence does not change, and no information is lost.
Yesterday he went to the store.
The above sentence is also correct. One can also write the same idea in a slightly different manner.
He went to the store yesterday.
It has the same meaning, but the time frame, which informs you of the when aspect, has been moved to the end of the clause. It is my personal preference to place the comma after such an element when it is provided at the start of a clause, but not the end. You need to find your own voice and style. You also need to consider when you want your audience to focus on specific information, so sometimes you will have to write a sentence with the restrictive element at the beginning, sometimes you’ll need it at the end, and sometimes you’ll need it in the middle. This is the art of editing….
Then, he went to the store. (How I like to write in order to set the restriction at the onset.)
He went to the store then. (How most people talk in order to provide the main idea at the onset.)
Then he went to the store. (A perfectly reasonable way to write the sentence without the optional comma.)
He went to the store, then. (A perfectly reasonable way to write the sentence with the optional comma, a comma I personally do not employ.)
All four are correct, and so in this case, consistency becomes imperative. Readers get annoyed when they read the following:
Yesterday, Bill went to the store. There he met Mike. The two got into a long discussion about the nature of commas. Bill became angry, then. Mike tried to calm down his buddy to no avail.
It’s a horrible lack of consistency. None of the commas are needed, but if you’re going to use a comma, be consistent.
Yesterday, Bill went to the store. There, he met Mike. The two got into a long discussion about the nature of commas. Bill became angry then. Mike tried to calm down his buddy, to no avail.
I added the comma between buddy and to because I’m really replacing the conjunction but. That comma is also not required, as the idea stands on its own, but I like to employ commas when I’m replacing a word.
Yesterday Bill went to the store. There he met Mike. The two got into a long discussion about the nature of commas. Bill became angry, then. Mike tried to calm down his buddy to no avail.
That’s also correct, and none of those commas have anything to do with pauses of speech. The above sentence doesn’t only make a point, it also shows something else. I placed a comma before and. A comma before and is not always required, and sometimes, it can be incorrect. The reason the comma is required is because the clause following the conjunction is a complete sentence. None of those commas have anything to do with pauses of speech.
In the case of the words following a conjunction, where a complete clause is not formed, there is no comma. For example:
That’s also correct and fun to do.
The words following the conjunction, fun to do, are not a complete sentence, so a comma is not used preceding and. Now, you can see why people get confused over comma usage, and we aren’t finished yet. I’m going to switch tactics just a bit, though.
He ran around the shed, dodging paint balls.
I have been told, incorrectly, that the above use of a comma is considered comma splicing. No it is not. Omit the comma, and what do we have?
He ran around the shed dodging paint balls.
The above example has a totally different meaning. In the first sentence, it is he who ran around the shed, and it is he who is dodging. In the second sentence, it is he who ran around the shed, but it is the shed that is dodging, and unless this is some wild sci-fi, that shed isn’t dodging anything. In this case, the comma is actually replacing the word while.
When there are two verbs in a sentence, it becomes critical to outline the meaning of the ideas, so the comma has nothing to do with a pause; I am not pausing between shed, dodging anymore than I am between shed dodging. My speech remains the same, yet when I speak the sentence, you know very well I am meaning that he ran, and he dodged the paint balls. Let’s see another example:
He ran around the woman jumping rope.
He ran around the woman, jumping rope.
Again, the two sentences provide totally different ideas because of the comma. Neither is wrong; they’re just different concepts. In the first, he ran around the woman, and the woman is jumping rope. In the second example, he ran around the woman, but it was he who was also jumping rope. Again, the comma is replacing while.
On occasion, though, there are forms of comma splicing, which can easily be overlooked, such as:
He took one, last look at her.
The comma usage is incorrect. You can tell by reading the sentence to yourself in kind of a strange way; it’s a trick that I use when I edit.
He took one and last look at her.
You can just slide the conjunction in place of the comma: he took one and last look at her. That’s obviously wrong; since the comma isn’t replacing and, there shouldn’t be a comma. It isn’t the same as: she was a big, tall woman, since the comma is replacing the conjunction: she was a big and tall woman.
Next, we have complete sentences jammed together by a comma:
That was prior to the invasion, now he was concerned with the lab in Russia.
The comma here is also not to indicate a pause. The comma is incorrect. The correct punctuation is a period.
That was prior to the invasion. Now, he was concerned with the lab in Russia.
Keep in mind that a period is also not an indication of a pause in speech. Several, short, choppy sentences can be strung together by someone speaking quickly, and there will be no pause between the sentences. It’s all very confusing. I know. It takes a great deal of practicing, practicing editing, not writing, to fully appreciate these guidelines, but I wanted to present a few points.
One, commas do not represent pauses in speech.
Two, commas do not represent pauses in speech.
Three, commas do not represent pauses in speech.
Four, many commas are optional, but they are to be used in order to clarify information.
Five, consistency is paramount.
Have you checked out Purdue Owl? If you have, before anyone jumps me, I know that number 3 on the Purdue Owl site references a pause, but they mean a pause in thought, not a pause in speech. This is much like the sentence preceding this one.
If you have, before anyone jumps me, I know that number 3 on the Purdue Owl site references a pause, but they mean a pause in thought, not a pause in speech.
Again, you may have paused when you spotted the commas, but I promise, I don't pause when I dictate.
You see how sets of commas break up thoughts, references, and afterthoughts, all of which are stuck into a single sentence. I can’t stress enough that just because you might pause while reading such phrases out loud doesn’t mean that everyone does, and it certainly doesn’t mean that one should insert commas every time they pause in their own speech.
I’m not even going to pretend that I’m an instructor of literature, but I am a writer, and I am an editor, and I have been taught many, many lessons over the years, and I just want to provide an outline of those lessons to those of you who would like to improve your writing.
For those who just want to write their story without worrying about any of this crap, feel free to do just that. I’ll say now what I always preach: there are no rules in writing, but there are rules in editing, and you should definitely hire an editor, a competent editor, and now you have a better understanding of what to look for when shopping for an editor.
Let me also ask you: can your editing software handle this?
Don't forget to check out my Editing Services tab. There are also links on the tab directing you to many more posts regarding the art of editing.