Ah, the comma. This little punctuation mark has caused more than its fair share of headaches to writers of all skill levels. Whether it's using too many commas or not enough, most writers struggle with learning exactly when they should use this illusive punctuation, and often, their final drafts suffer because of it. The major problem for most writers is keeping all of the rules straight. For example, the Modern Language Association has eleven total rules, and even those eleven are open to interpretation. With such loose rules, it's no surprise that all writers struggle with the comma.
In my work with Grammarly, I study how people write, and the tools they use to write better, and I've found a few tips that will help most writers overcome their struggle with commas. Remember that there is no substitute for good old-fashioned studying and practice, so if you want to perfect comma usage, the best thing you can do is put your nose to the grindstone and learn. If you need some quick and immediate help, remember the following tips.
● Learn the Big Rules – As previously mentioned, there are multiple comma rules with many open to interpretation. The best way to start improving your comma usage is to learn the major comma rules, the ones which are pretty firm. I've found the following four to be the most important:
○ Use a comma to separate like items in a list of three or more. The choice to use the last comma – the Oxford comma – is up to you as the writer.
○ Use a comma before a conjunction (“and,” “for,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “yet,” and “so”) when you're connection two independent clauses. Remember that an independent clause can stand alone as its own sentence, so it must have both a subject and a verb.
○ Use a comma to separate the main clause of a sentence from an introductory clause or phrase that precedes it.
○ Use two commas in the middle of a sentence to offset unimportant information.
● Avoid Unnecessary Commas – Many writers, when faced with a situation when they aren't quite sure whether or not to use a comma, opt to err on the side of caution and go ahead and use the comma. What this creates is a sentence filled to the brim with commas, most of which aren't necessary. When you aren't sure whether or not to use a comma, read the sentence again and ask yourself if the sentence is clear without a comma. If the intention of your sentence is still clear, and there's no confusion when reading it, the comma is most likely unnecessary.
● Commas Indicate Soft Pauses – Regardless of the rules, sometimes a writer just needs to force the reader to pause for a split-second to let something sink in. If that's the case, feel free to use a comma to indicate this pause. Be sure not to confuse the soft pause with some of the longer pauses caused by semi-colons and dashes.
● Proofread, Proofread, Proofread – No matter how good you get at comma usage, you will always benefit from some proofreading. Start by proofreading your own work, and then give your piece to a second reader you trust to go over it. Lastly, consider using one of the many online services to catch any stray comma errors you or your readers may have missed. For example, over at Grammarly, we offer one of the most sophisticated grammar checks on the Internet. We'll check over your text for over 200 grammar errors, including comma errors, essentially becoming a third set of eyes for you.
Comma rules are difficult, but they certainly aren't insurmountable. With a little bit of studying and practice, you'll soon find that even the loosest comma rules will come to you quickly and easily. And, with that, you'll find your writing life mostly headache free, often wondering what it was about commas that ever gave you those headaches in the first place.
Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, traveling, and reading.
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