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Comma Confused

October 23, 2012

Dear Diary,

I’m worried I have a serious problem, with commas. I’ve had it for a while. My teachers keep telling me, to look up comma rules or they try to lecture to me about them and I usually just lose focus or forget by the time I start another writing assignment. When I start to write I just don’t know when to add a pause and when to keep going or when to start a new sentence. Sometimes my sentences are choppy. They don’t always make sense together. How do I fix, this devastating, problem with my writing? I want my writing to be clear but I’m just so confused about how commas work.


Comma Confused


Dear Comma Confused,

Commas are great tools for writing, and you raise some good points about the confusion surrounding them.  Let’s go over some common uses for this useful punctuation mark.

Commas are used to separate full sentences joined by coordinating conjunctions, i.e., or, nor, for, but, so, and yet. For example: Sometimes working the cash register at the Taco Bell sucks, but then I remember that someone has to clean the bathroom. Both sides of the comma are full sentences, but the comma connects them with a nice transition word.

These nifty squiggles are used after introductory phrases, clauses, or words that come before the main clause. An example of an introductory clause comma is: While a shower toaster sounds like a good idea, there may be a flaw in your logic. In this example, the post-comma statement is a full sentence, but not the introductory clause. A use of an introductory word comma might look like this: Yes, these examples are hilarious!

Commas can also be used in the middle of a sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that are not essential to the meaning of a sentence; to clarify, if a phrase can be removed from the sentence and the sentence still makes sense, the phrase needs commas. For example: Allie, who works the register at Taco Bell, just bought a shower toaster at a shockingly low price. This sentence could just as easily have been Allie just bought a shower toaster at a shockingly low price, but with the addition of the clause, we know a little more about this Allie character.

Commas can be used while listing in order to differentiate items. For example: Toasters, hair driers, and microwaves are not to be used in the shower. The final comma, or oxford comma, is becoming more outdated in current times and is often excluded from writing. I’m a fan of the oxford comma because sometimes it helps to clarify a list, but you can make up your own mind about it.

Commas can be used to set off direct quotations, like: Julie said with consternation and disbelief, “What? Toasters shouldn’t be used in the shower? But it would save so much time in the morning!” This example speaks for itself.

Also, commas are used between two or more coordinating adjectives. For example: The biggest problem with the shower toaster is soggy, mushy toast. No one likes soggy, mushy toast.

A useful practice to decide if a comma is necessary is to read your sentences out loud as they are written. If you find you’re out of breath by the end because you didn’t have time to breath while you were reading, you probably need to either add a comma, or break your one sentence into a few different sentences. If that doesn’t help, come to the University Writing Center and grab a handout on comma usage or talk to a consultant!

Much love,


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