Grammar: The comma

Let’s take a moment to talk about that bugger of punctuation, the comma.

A lot of writers, both professional and amateur, misuse commas. That’s what editors are for. There is a student in my MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) who claims he’s been writing for years, and yet when I read his posts, he comes across as someone whose first language isn’t English. It is the way he phrases thing, and the way he puts thoughts into words. It’s clunky. I commented on it, and he said that English was the only language he spoke.

Wow. (Looking back, if someone commented that to me, I would have cried. I pretty much told this guy that his English sucked. It did, but that’s not the point.)

I didn’t know what to say. I went from being astonished that this guy wrote a story in another language to appalled that his writing skills were that bad. I mean, he’s in a Creative Writing Master’s program. Maybe I’m wrong for assuming that people in the MFA know how to write upon acceptance.

But, this student’s lack of comma-knowledge led to this post. It’s all about commas. Because he didn’t use commas. At all. Not even in dialog.

Rules brought to you by the Purdue OWL (Link):

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.

2. Use commas after introductory a) clauses, b) phrases, or c) words that come before the main clause.

While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.

3. Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence. Use one comma before to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause.

That Tuesday, which happens to be my birthday, is the only day when I am available to meet.

4. Do not use commas to set off essential elements of the sentence, such as clauses beginning with that (relative clauses). That clauses after nouns are always essential. That clauses following a verb expressing mental action are always essential.

The book that I borrowed from you is excellent.

Fred, who often cheats, is just harming himself.

5. Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series.

Jan likes watermelon, pineapple, starfruit, and bananas.

Mike want to one day climb a mountain, surf on the ocean, read to blind children, and go on a hike in Alaska.

6. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Be sure never to add an extra comma between the final adjective and the noun itself or to use commas with non-coordinate adjectives.

He was a difficult, stubborn child. (coordinate)

They lived in a white frame house. (non-coordinate)

7. Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasted coordinate elements or to indicate a distinct pause or shift.

He was merely ignorant, not stupid.

8. Use commas to set off phrases at the end of the sentence that refer to the beginning or middle of the sentence. Such phrases are free modifiers that can be placed anywhere in the sentence without causing confusion. (If the placement of the modifier causes confusion, then it is not “free” and must remain “bound” to the word it modifies.)

Nancy waved enthusiastically at the docking ship, laughing joyously. (correct)
INCORRECT:Lisa waved at Nancy, laughing joyously. (Who is laughing, Lisa or Nancy?)

9. Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

Birmingham, Alabama, gets its name from Birmingham, England.

10. Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

John said without emotion, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

11. Use commas wherever necessary to prevent possible confusion or misreading.

To George, Harrison had been a sort of idol.

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