Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Writing Tip Wednesday--Comma Usage Part 1

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!

Mellanie Szereto
Romance...With A Kick!


  1. Since Sandy James will probably consider this required reading for me, I'm leaving a comment to prove I was here. :D

  2. I log on to Purdue OWL and they have various manuals available and it's easy to search. Otherwise, if one doesn't have a copy of a style guide then the local library would have them.

    okay, so it's not always necessary to place the comma after the third element in a series. I stopped doing it and then I've gone back to doing so.

    1. Purdue OWL is a great resource, D.D. Symms! Libraries too. :)

      The serial comma can be a matter of preference, but be prepared to adhere to the style of your publishing house (if you have one). Otherwise, be consistent!

  3. My brain is fried, and you haven't even got to my biggest problem of comma splices! But very good explanations.

    1. Now you know why I chose to break up this topic into a series, Jen!

      An FYI--I posted a blog on comma splices last November. Scroll down the page to Labels and click Comma Splices!

  4. I, too, prefer the use of the serial comma. Great post. :) the non-restrictive appositives are my Achilles heel, but I'm gradually learning.

    1. Don't feel bad about the non-restrictive appositives, Jen. I'm pretty sure most people have a hard time remembering that one!