How, Do, I, Use, Commas?

Of all the writers whose work I’ve edited, 99% have made mistakes with commas. The 1% was an English teacher. 😉 I’ve discovered that commas are confusing for pretty much everyone, not just writers, especially since social media and online articles use them haphazardly. What’s the cure for comma confusion?

If you are a professional writer, you can (and should) study the craft of correct punctuation. But if you want a simple cheat sheet to help with some of the most basic comma problems, here’s where to start. I’ll make them easy enough to memorize—then put them in practice!

1)  If a line should flow without a comma, don’t put one in. (Read the sentence out loud.)
[Wrong] The dog, tripped over my foot, when I stuck it out.
[Right] The dog tripped over my foot when I stuck it out.

[Wrong] He picked up his toupee, and put it on his head, securely.
[Right] He picked up his toupee and put it on his head securely.

2) If there is a list of three or more items, people, activities, etc., put a comma after each one until you reach “and” or “or.” (This is called an Oxford comma, and it is so important that a company lost $10 million—MILLION!—dollars for leaving one of these commas out. That’s a pretty hefty fine over one missing comma, wouldn’t you say? I’ll put the details below the Savvy Writers Tip.)

[Wrong] I grabbed my cell phone ran outside to the neighbor’s house and called my friend.
[Right] I grabbed my cell phone, ran outside to the neighbor’s house, and called my friend. (Three actions)

[Wrong] She invited her friends Mary Ann and Debbie to the party.
[Right] She invited her friends Mary, Ann, and Debbie to the party. (Three people, not two)

[Wrong] Kira couldn’t decide if she should date Brandon Dillon Ethan or Bubba.
[Right] Kira couldn’t decide if she should date Brandon, Dillon, Ethan, or Bubba. (Four options)

[Wrong] He ate ice cream and cake and cookies and pizza and drank a liter of Coke.
[Right]  He ate ice cream, cake, cookies, pizza, and drank a liter of Coke. (Five things he ingested. Then he got sick!)

3) Put commas around all names/nicknames when addressing anyone:
“Listen, Bob, you can do it.”
“Young lady, please step forward.”
“But, Mom, you said I could go out tonight!”

4) Some information is parenthetical (it’s not necessary to understand the sentence), so it should be put in between commas.

  • Parenthetical phrases: if we took the phrase out, the sentence would be understood without it.

[Wrong] I saw my friend the one with the green car and waved.
[Right] I saw my friend, the one with the green car, and waved. (not necessary information)

[Wrong] She ran after the dog who was racing ahead and tried to catch him.
[Right] She ran after the dog, who was racing ahead, and tried to catch him. (not necessary information)

When naming a specific person—there is only ONE possibility—the phrase is parenthetical (because it couldn’t be anyone else):
[Wrong] My mom Ann birthed me.
[Right] My mom, Ann, birthed me.

[Wrong] My English teacher Mr. Comma is very strict.
[Right] My English teacher, Mr. Comma, is very strict.

  • Required phrases: do not put commas around them. This is necessary information that can’t be removed from the sentence. Don’t get these mixed up with parenthetical phrases.

[Wrong] Todd went with his friend, Sam, to the game.
[Right] Todd went with his friend Sam to the game. (We can’t leave out the friend’s name or we won’t know who Todd went with.)

[Wrong] She dropped to the floor as the window, behind her, shattered.
[Right] She dropped to the floor as the window behind her shattered. (We have to see where the window is. If it’s upstairs, that’s a completely different visual than if it’s right behind her. The location is necessary information.)

[Wrong] The detective picked up the notepad, on which, someone had written an address.
[Right] The detective picked up the notepad on which someone had written an address. (This is just grammatically incorrect. Take out “on which” and read it out loud—does it make sense? No. So don’t put commas around it.)

[Wrong] She picked up the wounded bird, carefully.
[Right] She picked up the wounded bird carefully. (“Carefully” is necessary for us to know how she treats birds. She could have picked up the wounded bird and thrown it in the trash.)

5) Compound sentences require a comma between them. They are typically separated by “and” or “but,” and each half of the sentence has a subject and a verb. You can identify compound sentences because they could also be written as two separate sentences.

Example 1: Jim yelled, and the cat ran. This could also be written: Jim yelled. The cat ran.
Example 2: George fell off the ladder, and he broke his arm. This could also be written: George fell off the ladder. He broke his arm.

  • The following compound sentences need a comma—or split them into two sentences:

The plane started to nosedive, and all the people screamed.

She wasn’t a great cook, but she sure could make delicious brownies.

Being in that earthquake when the building fell all around me was the most terrifying experience in my life, and I never want to experience anything like that again.

I’m saving up my money to go on a vacation, and I hope I can afford to visit a bunch of awesome places in Europe.

  • In contrast, this is not a compound sentence, so do not put a comma in:
    I’m saving up my money because I want to go on a vacation and visit a bunch of awesome places in Europe.

REMEMBER: Do not put commas around “because” or “since”

6) Make sure everything in a sentence belongs there. Don’t mix topics—put each one in a separate sentence.

[Wrong] On Tuesday, the teacher surprised his students, except for Bob, who was sick that day, with a pop quiz.
[Right] On Tuesday, the teacher surprised his students with a pop quiz. Bob was out sick that day.

[Wrong] Jane looked at the menu in confusion, Jean-Claude smiled at her, she didn’t know French, and he asked if she wanted help.
[Right] Jane looked at the menu in confusion since she didn’t know French. Jean-Claude smiled at her, asking if she wanted help.

Well, those examples should get you started. If you apply the rules above, you will already be using commas the right way!

Savvy Writer Tip:

Commas can be confusing, especially since we see them used incorrectly in social media, on websites, in blogs, etc. But there are rules to using commas correctly. If you are a serious writer, get a grammar book or use online grammar sites to learn how to use commas professionally. But anyone can apply the examples I’ve given above to make their writing cleaner and clearer. You can conquer comma confusion! 🙂

The $10 Million Comma

The Oxford comma may seem unnecessary or redundant, but sometimes it’s absolutely critical. A dairy company in Portland, Maine ignored the Oxford comma in a contract. They lost a lawsuit over that missing comma and had to pay $10 million! Here’s a link to the summary of what went wrong by a professional grammarian (you can research it online to find the actual lawsuit):

In every professional field (except the media), the Oxford comma is required. Redundant or not, it is used in all writing for consistency—and accuracy. Always use the Oxford comma. It’s your friend! 🙂