I don't know what I was thinking. Comma Usage? I could spend days talking about the rules--and the exceptions.
How about I make this topic a three-part series? I don't want to be held responsible for anyone's brain overload!
The Golden Rule: Get a copy of Chicago Manual of Style (or whichever style guide you prefer) and keep it handy while you're writing. Yes, I mention this in almost every WTW post, but good writing resources are essential to honing your craft. I'm sure I'll plug CMOS again next week too. :D
Remember, these rules can vary a bit from style to style!
1) Commas should be used with a combination of good punctuation judgment and ease of reading in mind. They can denote pauses, but aren't always necessary. Sometimes, they're used for clarity of meaning. If your critique partner/beta reader asks for clarification, a comma may solve the issue.
2) To use or not use the serial comma? The answer depends on which style you're following. CMOS advocates the use of the serial (Oxford, Harvard) comma when writing a list connected by a conjunction (and, or, etc.). The AP Stylebook says to use a serial comma only when absolutely necessary. My vote goes to "use." It often creates a clear understanding of the intended meaning.
Dialogue punctuation can include quotation marks, commas, and periods. OR Dialogue punctuation can include quotation marks, commas and periods.
After the addition of potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, stir the soup and cover with a tight-fitting lid. OR After the addition of potatoes, carrots and cabbage, stir the soup and cover with a tight-fitting lid.
The valedictorian thanked his favorite teachers, his parents, and his uncle. OR The valedictorian thanked his favorite teachers, his parents and his uncle. (This one brings up the clarity issue. Are his parents and his uncle his favorite teachers?)
He bought birthday gifts for his mother, sister, and wife. OR He bought birthday gifts for his mother, sister and wife. (Here's another case of necessary punctuation. Is his mother also his sister and his wife?)
3) Use commas with non-restrictive clauses. If the clause can be removed from the sentence without changing the meaning, it's non-restrictive. This was a major issue in a couple contest entries I judged this year.
The shoes were made of cloth, which had been woven by local artisans.
The electrician, who wasn't licensed or bonded, short-circuited the entire house.
4) Use commas with non-restrictive appositives. An appositive is an equivalent explanation to a noun. If this alternative can be removed without confusing the reader about the noun to which it refers, it's non-restrictive.
My favorite animated movie, Despicable Me, is available on DVD.
Her sister, Karen, has two children. (This works here if she has only one sister. If she has two or more sisters, the appositive becomes restrictive and commas shouldn't be used.)
Okay, time for a deep breath. We'll cover more on Comma Usage next week!
Romance...With A Kick!