Commas: Love Them or Hate Them?

Commas--you either love them or hate them.

Comma lovers understand when, how, and, most importantly, why to use them. Haters don't. 

To be fair, some lovers think they understand but don't really.

Punctuation lessons have gotten confusing over the last few decades. The biggest disaster in comma education came from the practice of teaching students to put in a comma whenever they pause while speaking the sentence. Unfortunately, that's a misleading direction. Lots of people pause for emphasis. Those pauses don't always align with grammar rules.

Imagine putting commas everywhere James T. Kirk pauses in this clip.


To complicate matters, even the people who know how to use commas don't always agree. 

Take the Oxford comma for example—a simple rule complicated by people who decided we didn't need the last comma in a list. Somewhere along the way, schools started teaching that the comma before the "and" or "or" at the end of the list was not necessary. Me? I prefer using the Oxford comma. It improves comprehension and eliminates confusion.

Found on

But I'm getting off track. Let's look at three useful comma rules.

1. To join two independent clauses, use a comma followed by a conjunction, a semicolon alone, or a semicolon followed by a sentence modifier.

Independent clause = a clause that can stand alone as a complete sentence.

Conjunction = and, or, but, yet, so

Sentence modifier = however, although, therefore

A breeze drifted over the lake, and its chill raised goose flesh on my bare arms.

In this sentence, we have two stand-alone sentences combined into one sentence using the conjunction "and."  To join them, we need the comma. If you don't want the comma, you can revise the sentence by removing the subject in the second clause:

A breeze drifted over the lake and raised goose flesh on my bare arms.

2. Use commas to bracket nonrestrictive phrases, which are not essential to the sentence's meaning.

Nonrestrictive phrase = adds extra meaning but is not essential to the meaning of the main sentence.


She yanked her feet out of the lake, splashing us in the process, and ran away.

In this sentence, the phrase "splashing us in the process" is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. If you remove it, the sentence still retains its original meaning.

She yanked her feet out of the lake and ran away.

For that reason, the phrase isn't essential and is set off from the sentence by commas. 

Sometimes, the nonrestrictive phrase is a restating or renaming of the noun it follows:

Our manager, Joan Simmons, needs five people to work the booth at the convention.

In this case, Joan Simmons is the nonrestrictive phrase. Yes, it adds meaning, but we don't need to know the manager's name to understand the sentence.

3. Do not use commas to bracket phrases that are essential to a sentence's meaning.


We walked up the hill, to the cars, on the other side. (incorrect)

The words "to the cars" feel like extra information, but these three words are an essential part of the sentence's meaning. They should not be set off by commas. If you're unsure, try reading the sentence without the phrase:

We walked up the hill on the other side. 
(Incorrect because the other side now refers to which hill they walked up.)

Since removing the phrase alters the sentence's meaning, we do not use commas. The correct way to write this sentence is:

We walked up the hill to the cars on the other side. (correct)

Got questions? Let me know in the comments.

Next week, we'll look at three more rules. Here's a sneak peek:

  1. When beginning a sentence with an introductory phrase or an introductory (dependent) clause, include a comma.
  2. Use proper punctuation to integrate a quotation into a sentence. If the introductory material ends in "thinks," "saying," or some other verb indicating expression, use a comma and quotation marks.
  3. When writing a list of three or more items, separate the items using commas. For the last item in the list, use a comma and the word "and" or "or."

Now get out there and LOVE your commas...but correctly please.


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