The comma is, in my opinion, the chameleon of the punctuation family. And I don’t mean that in a good way, but rather that it reminds me of the chameleon Randall from the Disney movie Monster’s Inc. Why? Because despite the many grammatical rules about using the comma, they’re always changing or including exceptions that basically say, “This is the rule, but you can do it this way, or you can do it that way, or you can follow what this person does, or what that person does”. Sort of like a chameleon changes colors. It’s enough to drive you batty.
There’s no way in this blog post I can cover all the rules there are associated with the comma. But I’m going to do my best to cover two instances that create problems for authors.
INDEPENDENT CLAUSES: This is more commonly known as a sentence. So basically what this means is if you have two sentences that are joined by a conjunction (and, but, or, so, yet – just to name a few), you need a comma before the conjunction. You wouldn’t believe how many people omit a comma in this instance. I’m going to show you a couple examples to help illustrate how I remember this rule.
She abused this privilege by taking the information and using it to prevent her charge from dying.
Her feelings for Owen might have clouded her judgment but she would never stoop to sacrificing others for her own selfish desires.
Which one of the above examples needs a comma? If you guessed the second one, you’re right. In the first example, the first phrase can’t stand alone. It doesn’t make sense to say She abused this privilege by taking the information. The second clause is no better. Using it to prevent her charge from dying doesn’t make a sentence either. But in Example 2, Her feelings for Owen might have clouded her judgment is a complete sentence. As is She would never stoop to sacrificing others for her own selfish desires.
The way I remember when to insert a comma and when not to is: INDEPENDENT CLAUSES are IN NEED of a comma. DEPENDENT CLAUSES DEPEND on the contraction so NO COMMA!
INTRODUCTORY WORDS AND PHRASES: This is one of the toughest comma rules (and I use the word rules loosely when it comes to commas) because it doesn’t really give you a clear answer. The rule says that generally an introductory word or phrase is followed by a comma, but to use your best judgment. HELLOOOOO! If we didn’t want someone to come out and tell us what to do, we wouldn’t be reading the rules!
To be honest, this one stumps me the most. With this rule, there’s really no rhyme or reason that goes into an individual’s decision to use a comma or to omit it. I do have a little secret I’ll share that will make it easier. It’s a sure-fire formula you can use to determine if a comma is truly needed. It’s simple and it hasn’t failed me yet.
- Ask yourself if the sentence can stand on its own without the phrase.
- Is the phrase being used to insert a pause in the sentence?
- Place the phrase at the end of the sentence to see if you would need to insert a comma for clarity.
- Is the phrase essential to the sentence or is it added information?
- Turn the sentence into a question and see if it makes sense with the phrase.
I know, I know. I hear you all groaning about having to do so much work. And YES you have to do it. If you’re serious about being an author, then you have to do everything possible to make your manuscript the best it can be. Now for a training exercise.
To be fair it hadn’t taken much convincing.
Step 1: take the introductory phrase away and see if the rest of the clause is a sentence. It hadn’t taken much convincing. Yes, it’s a sentence and it can stand on its own.
Step 2: Read the sentence aloud and see if you automatically insert a pause after the phrase. Yes, you should have inserted a pause.
Step 3: Place the phrase at the end of the sentence and see if a comma is needed for clarity. It hadn’t taken much convincing to be fair. Yes, in this instance a comma is definitely needed for understanding.
Step 4: Is the phrase essential to the sentence? This is a little trickier to answer, but we know it’s not essential to make the clause a sentence and we know it’s not needed to help clarify what’s being discussed, so it might make the sentence better but it’s not essential. So the answer is NO.
Step 5: Turn the sentence into a question and see if it’s awkward with the phrase. To be fair had it taken much convincing? Had it taken much convincing? It’s not hard to see that the sentence with the phrase is very awkward when turned into a question if you don’t have a comma.
In a nutshell, if you find that you answer yes to steps 1, 2, & 3 and that you answer no to step 4 and that when you complete step 5 it’s awkward, you need the comma. You might be thinking, “But I know that since steps 1 & 2 are yes that I need a comma so I don’t need to complete the other steps”. Wrong. Most people do steps 1 & 2 and still don’t get it right. Until you practice going through all these steps and truly have a grasp of using commas with introductory phrases and words, complete all five steps!
Now, PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. You can start with the few examples I’ve provided. Which ones need a comma? Do you have a sentence you’d like to discuss?
With open arms she ran to him.
Before he could shoot the woman whipped the fire extinguisher around and sprayed the animal.
Slowly Kell stood.
Hope this helps! Still have a question, post it in the comment section and I'll see if I can help you muddle through it:)