Writing tip: when to use commas

Writing Tips

Knowing when to use commas in your writing is important for your writing to make sense and be grcomma image for blog 23 oct 2014ammatically correct.

Despite its small stature, the comma is a key punctuation mark, with its primary role to enhance clarity and eliminate ambiguity.

Although some general principles apply, there are a number of situations where knowing when to use commas becomes a matter of judgement and personal preference.

Despite the fact that there are many reasons for using commas, the biggest problem is people tend to overuse them.  Remember that a pause in reading is not always a reliable reason to use a comma.

Before you insert a comma, review your understanding of sentence structure and consider carefully how it is written to determine whether a comma, or series of commas is needed.

The list containing instructions on when to use a comma is long and some of the grammatical terms used requires explaining.  So, to keep it simple, here are some of the more common uses for a comma:-

1.  Avoiding ambiguity…

Consider these sentences:-

“I told them to eat Helen”

“I told them eat, Helen”

The position of the comma gives both sentences completely different meanings

2.  Run-on lists…

Commas are used to separate items in a series or list within a sentence:-

“We need your name, date of birth, address and telephone number”

3.  Strings of adjectives…

In a string of adjectives preceding a noun, commas are usually required only between adjectives of the same type:-

“The tree has large, green, shiny, oval-shaped leaves” (all descriptive)

4.  Coordinate clauses…

Use a comma PLUS a “little” conjunction such as and, but, for, yet, so and nor, to connect two independent clauses such as:-

“He hit the ball well, but missed a home run”

In some short sentences such as the one above, a comma isn’t always needed but if in doubt, include it as this is the the right thing to do

5.  Use a comma to set off introductory elements…

“Running towards the shop, he suddenly remembered he had left his wallet at home”

6.  Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements, as in

“The Iron Bridge, which spans the Murray River, is falling down”

By “parenthetical element”, I mean the part of a sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence. The parenthetical element is sometimes called “added information.”

7.  Use a comma before inserting a quote in your writing as follows:-

“In concluding his thesis James wrote, “I hope that people reading this document will realise the importance of living sustainably…”

8.  Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast…

“The kitten was cute, but very naughty”

The humble comma is small but significant and if you’re still not sure when to use a comma in your writing, send me a message via the Contact page. Happy writing!

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