If you’re a writer, you can’t avoid using commas at some point. They’re a part of almost every sentence and give them life. There are still some people who just don’t get the hang of them, some that fear them and others who don’t pay attention.
Today, I’m going to give a few thoughts about the use of commas.
Even though I’ve been using them both properly and improperly for too many years to count, I try to keep up and use commas to the best of my ability. In my own writing, when I have the forest-through-the-trees thing going on, I can always count on my favorite comma Nazi at the writer’s group to find the ones I miss. We’ve given her that name because she’s super sharp when it comes to commas, in part from her Air Force writing days. A lot of that was instilled in me as well.
As an editor, I see it much easier in other people’s work.
WHY USE A COMMA?
Special uses notwithstanding, one of my best definitions for using a comma is to break a sentence into clauses. When writing a sentence, even if it’s not spoken, when you read it, think as if you were speaking it. Where in that sentence might you want to take a breath before continuing on? THAT is probably a good place for a comma. The comma is the symbol for a pause, a place to break the sentence into parts to take a breath without turning them into separate sentences that require noun-subject-verb all over again. It allows flow without becoming choppy.
RULES RULES RULES
By looking in the Chicago Manual of Style, there are several pages covering general “rules,” but they all boil down to the same thing in most cases. Feel.
After reading every single one of the rules, and there were thirty-eight of them, given the sentence examples, they still boiled down to clauses and feel. Now that’s just the general rules. There are other sections for special rules that I’m not going to cover. To keep it simple, I want to stick to text and not things like dates, titles etc.
The one thing I didn’t see addressed in those rules was the overuse of commas. There’s nothing more annoying than reading something with an abundance of commas. I have a very simple rule for that.
If you have more than three or at most, four commas per sentence, something is wrong! Except in rare cases, that means either:
- The sentence is too long.
- The sentence is too complex.
- It smacks of a list (lists are bad and a whole different subject).
- The phrasing is choppy and breathing is erratic.
Too many commas means it’s time to edit.
Not using enough commas means you don’t know how to breathe in the sentences, phrase them right or like to ramble on too much. This will tire out your readers and make their minds wander. Keep in mind that when reading, your mind needs to breathe as much as your voice when speaking.
THE ONE RULE I BREAK
It’s not that I’m so much breaking this rule, but instead of going by the Chicago Manual Of Style, I go by Air Force Manual 50-34, the manual for writing, which is probably some other manual now. It has to do with commas in a series.
Joe had seven dimes, three nickels, five pennies and a half dollar.
The Chicago Manual of Style says there should be a comma after pennies. The AF manual says the and takes the place of the final comma. I agree with the AF on that. Instead of adding in another punctuation mark, I use the and as the final mark. Adding a comma adds an unnecessary bit of punctuation, our doubles the meaning of the and.
Whenever I read at the writer’s group, I sometimes get corrected by certain people who like to add in the comma before the and while others don’t, like the comma Nazi! My editor at the publisher agrees with me also.
In the end, learning how to use commas comes with time and feel.
I have not gone over every case, such as in dates, addresses and special circumstances because the article would be way too long. I’ve covered the gist of what you need to know for everyday storytelling narrative.
Try reading a sentence aloud and see where you need to take a breath, that’s probably a good indication of where you need a comma.