Friday, March 22, 2019

That Pesky Comma by Erika M Szabo

Where does it belong?

I learned English as an adult and the comma became my worst nightmare when I started writing.
Where it's needed and don't need it?
I read a book recently and found a lot of sentences where the comma was used incorrectly. I'm no expert, and I still rely on editors to correct my mistakes, but this book gave me the impression that it had never seen a good editor.
I rely on the editors to catch my mistakes, but I really should use my cheat-sheet more often. I bet my editor would have fewer headaches.

Here is my cheat-sheet:

Use a comma before any coordinating conjunction
"I walked by the lake, and I saw a fox."

"I walked by the lake" and "I saw a fox" are both independent clauses, therefore, we need a comma.

However, if I eliminate the second "I" the second clause would lack a subject, making it not a clause at all. In that case, it would no longer need a comma: 

"I walked by the lake and saw a fox."

Use a comma after a dependent clause that starts a sentence.
"When I walked by the lake, I saw a fox."

I had trouble to grasp this rule: "Commas always follow these clauses at the start of a sentence. If a dependent clause ends the sentence, however, it no longer requires a comma. Only use a comma to separate a dependent clause at the end of a sentence for added emphasis, usually when negation occurs."

Use commas to offset appositives from the rest of the sentence.
Appositives act as synonyms for a juxtaposed word or phrase.
"While walking, I saw a fox, a kind of mammal." "A kind of mammal" is the appositive, which gives more information about "a fox."

If the appositive occurs in the middle of the sentence, both sides of the phrase need a comma. As in, "A fox, a kind of mammal, attacked me."

Now this scared me until I understood the logic in it. "As long as the phrase somehow gives more information about its predecessor, you usually need a comma."

"A fox, the kind of mammal I saw when I went walking, attacked me."

There's one exception to this rule. Don't offset a phrase that gives necessary information to the sentence. Usually, commas surround a non-essential clause or phrase.
"The fox that attacked me scared my friend" doesn't require any commas. Even though the phrase "that attacked me" describes "the fox," it provides essential information to the sentence. Otherwise, no one would know why the fox scared your friend. Clauses that begin with "that" are usually essential to the sentence and do not require commas.

Use commas to separate items in a series. 
"I saw a fox, a mammal, and a liquor store when I went running."

That last comma, known as the serial comma, Oxford comma, or Harvard comma, causes serious controversy. Although many consider it unnecessary, others, including Business Insider, insist on its use to reduce ambiguity.

Use a comma after introductory adverbs.
"Finally, I went running."
"Surprisingly, I saw a fox when I went running."

Use a comma when attributing quotes.
The runner said, "I saw a fox."
"I saw a fox," said the runner.
Enjoy the introduction of my urban fantasy trilogy
Trilogy box set
Books in the series


  1. I've always used the Oxford comma.

    Thanks for the refresher!

    1. After writing so many books and giving my editors headaches, I just had a genius idea yesterday to print the cheat-sheet and pin it above my computer. Duh! I should have done it years ago!

  2. Wow thanks for this article. Commas are my nemesis. I put them where they shouldn't be and don't put them where they should be. And I never knew what an Oxford comma was.

  3. I'm so glad you posted this. My editor always chastises me over my commas. Oops! I think I'm better now but clearly have a long way to go.

    1. Yup, my editor too :) Either I miss adding a comma or I add it to the wrong place. I can't win the comma war :)

  4. Editors just do not understand the importance of commas, they have feelings too!

  5. I hate commas. I probably would have had an A in English comp without extra credit if not for comma usage. Thanks for the cheet sheet. And just to show how important commas are a major law case was recently lost over, you got it, an Oxford comma.

    1. Yes, commas are important! A little comma makes a huge difference between: "Let's eat grandma" and "Let's eat, grandma" :)