Lesson 1: Commas are essential, but how do you use them?

Commas are probably the most misunderstood punctuation mark. But, next to the period, they’re the most important.

So what’s all the confusion about?

Remember when you were an elementary school student? (Just a few years ago for some of you, but decades for others).

You probably were taught that you put a comma whenever you pause. Well, this can make for some horrifying sentences, filled with unnecessary commas. Or long sentences with no commas at all for those who don’t breathe when they’re talking.

On top of that, it depends on the type of sentence.

Even more confusing, the rules aren’t definite. There’s art involved. And everyone has their own style. There are some basic rules that will keep you on track, though. And make your writing appealing to almost everyone. 

Are commas really all that important? In a word: Yes! Reading is very uncomfortable when you have to think about what a sentence means. Commas make sentences flow, and help convey an author’s true meaning.

So let me reveal some of the secrets of the comma in a series of articles.

Lesson 1

Okay. Let’s get started. Here’s the situation.

Your sentence is long, and it can actually be broken down into two separate sentences.

Additionally, just like the sentence above, a special word connects the two pieces. (That special word happens to be called a conjunction, but we won’t worry about labels.)

What qualifies as that special word?

Think of the words “Foreigner” “and” “Soviet“. Then think “Forornor and Sobutyet.” Huh? Forornor = For, Or, Nor. And = And. Sobutyet = So, But, Yet. (Weird, I know. I’m just trying to make commas fun!) 

Those are the 7 conjunctions. For, Or, Nor, And, So, But, Yet. 

So, anytime one of those words connects two complete sentences, throw a comma right before the connecting word. Why before, you ask? Well, you need to take a breath before you join anything…whether it’s a club, your life partner, or two sentences.

Some examples:

“I’m going to start applying for retail jobs, but I don’t know if I want to stand up all day.”

“Blogging is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, yet it can be a lot of hard work.”

With me so far? Here’s where commas can throw you a curve (no pun intended).

The more common joining words are and, but, and or. Right? If one of the two separate sentences is short, and a common joining word connects them, you can choose to throw out the comma.

“She ate the pie and it made her feel surprisingly happy.”

“Blogging is different but I like it more than I thought I would.”

On the other hand, if your two sentence parts are extremes, or if one part has its own commas, you can use a semicolon instead.

“Trees, both old and young, offer life-giving oxygen to our earth; yet we continue to destroy them.”

Did you already know these rules? Do you have any examples of poor comma usage to share? Stay tuned for Lesson 2 in the days ahead.

10 Responses to “Lesson 1: Commas are essential, but how do you use them?”

  1. El Yanqui says:

    You have a good site here, with some useful information.

    I like this post and it reminds me of the Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart quote: The older I grow, the less important the comma becomes. Let the reader catch his own breath.

  2. Theda K. says:

    Thanks for stopping by, El Yanqui. Cute quote, too. I dropped by your site too. If you come back, feel free to Stumble any posts you like. Hope to see you again!

  3. […] begin Lesson 2 of our series on commas. If you missed Lesson 1, you can find it […]

  4. […] point, chances are you do have to pause at some point during the sentence. So be sure to use a comma somewhere. But be careful. I don’t know which is worse. Using commas all over the place, or not using […]

  5. Matt says:

    “Commas make sentences flow, and help convey an author’s true meaning.”

    WHY WOULD YOU PUT A COMMA ERROR AT THE TOP OF YOUR POST!?

    • Theda K. says:

      I don’t see an error in the sentence you quoted. Please feel free to let me know how it was an error (and where I can find that rule too…I definitely want my post to be error free, at least as far as commas go).

      • Matt says:

        there’s no subject after the conjunction in the second half of the sentence. To remedy this you should either remove the comma or write the following:
        “Commas make sentences flow, and THEY help convey an author’s true meaning.”

        • Theda K. says:

          I see your point, Matt.

          However, according to both the Chicago Manual of Style and the Harbrace College Handbook, a comma before the conjunction in a sentence with a compound predicate is more of a judgment call, though it’s generally preferred that there is no comma, as you said.

          It’s not a punctuation error, though.

          So I can’t answer your all-caps question, since I didn’t put a comma error at the top of my post. It’s a matter of style or preference to some extent.

          I am sure, though, that I do have errors throughout many of my posts (I never claimed to be perfect). But that particular sentence doesn’t happen to have an error, according to my sources.

          Thanks for the heads up, Matt!

  6. It’s so nice to see someone sharing proper grammer tips. We seem to have gonde downhill in that department these days.

  7. sandra says:

    That is a very well written article. I know what you mean with commas and how no written rules apply to where you put them, I will use your tips in the future.