by Lori Freeland
The comma. It’s a scrappy little mark—that’s often the bane of an author’s writerly existence. With every clause, the question becomes, to comma, or not to comma?
As an editor, I’ve had quite a few clients tell me they tend to stick commas in wherever they “sound” like they should go. It’s a trend you’ll find even in professionally published manuscripts. My inner editor always wants to post a warning on these books. Caution: Be on the Lookout for Random Raining Commas Ahead.
On the flip side, I’ve had other clients tell me they have no idea where commas belong. So, they don’t use any. I’d post this warning on those books. Caution: Ambiguous Sentences Ahead. Navigate at Your Own Risk.
Considering that your average, everyday author doesn’t have a degree in English, what’s a conscientious writer to do? If English was your least favorite class <raises hand>, you might not be too hyped about the answer, but I’ll share it with you anyway.
Put in the time to learn the basic comma rules and the “whys” behind them. Or at least learn how and where to accurately look them up.
Side Note: All websites are not equal when it comes to correct grammar and punctuation. I’ll share some great sites at the end of this post. And don’t rely too heavily on spellcheck (now called “editor”) in Word. It doesn’t have a degree in English either.
Avoid Comma Abuse
Let’s start with the worst offender. Never, never, ever use a comma to separate the subject (noun) from the verb. When you do this, you’re breaking up the basic definition of a sentence.
What is a sentence? A sentence is a group of words with at least one subject (noun) and one verb that has a complete thought. Basically, a sentence doesn’t leave you hanging.
Correct: The coolest thing about a unicorn is its horn.
Incorrect: The coolest thing about a unicorn, is its horn.
The comma in the second example separates the first part of the sentence from the second. “The coolest thing about a unicorn” (is what?). And “is the horn” tells us nothing. Neither part makes sense alone. Both leave you hanging.
That’s going to be your biggest clue about where to add commas and where to leave them out. Tuck that information away for now, and let’s jump into some relevant definitions.
Sentences, Clauses, and Predicates, Oh My!
If this subheading is giving you nightmare-esque flashbacks to middle school English, no worries. Let’s take these one at a time.
A clause is a group of words with a subject and predicate that make up part of a complex or compound sentence
If you’re already shaking your head, let’s redefine in simpler terms.
A CLAUSE has both a noun and a verb and is part of a longer sentence.
There. That wasn’t too bad, right?
A SUBJECT issimply a noun (person, place, thing) doing the action.
A PREDICATE is simply a verb that tells you what action that noun is doing.
And because it’s going to come up later, an OBJECT is simply a noun (person, place, thing) receiving the action. Not all sentences have objects, and that’s okay.
Example: My sister (noun) drove (verb) a sleek black Porsche (object).
This is a simple example of WHO (noun) DID WHAT (verb) to WHAT (noun).
In case you were wondering, a complex sentence has one independent clause and at least one independent clause, and a compound sentence has two independent clauses.
Sometimes a clause can stand on its own (when it’s independent). Other times it can’t (when it’s dependent).
Still confused? Read on!
Independent Versus Dependent Clauses
What makes a clause independent or dependent? Think of clauses like small children. If they’re independent, they can get dressed and feed themselves without help from you. They can “stand alone.”
If they’re dependent, they can’t get dressed or feed themselves without help from you. They can’t “stand alone.” They’re depending on you for their survival.
If a sentence is independent, it doesn’t need help doing its job. If its dependent, it’s depending on another part of the sentence to get the job done.
Hint: Remember, all clauses need a subject and a verb.
An independent clause can stand alone because it forms a complete thought.
If you “fuse” two independent clauses together, you’ll have a run-on sentence. It’s sort of like fusing two trains together—engine to caboose. Both engines want to “drive,” and that makes the “tracks” of your sentence hard to navigate.
Incorrect: The wind blew the branches swayed.
Notice the two subjects (wind/branches) and two verbs (blew/swayed). When you read this out loud, you’re not sure where one part ends and the other begins. You don’t get the proper pause that gives a reader clarity. And you also throw a stumbling block into the path of a smooth read.
You can fix that run-on sentence two ways—separate it into two sentences with a period or add a comma after a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).
Correct: The wind blew. The branches swayed.
Correct: The wind blew, and the branches swayed.
Side Note: This is an example of a compound sentence. It has two independent clauses connected by a conjunction (and).
Here are some examples with the other conjunctions.
- The party ended, but no one would leave.
- We didn’t drive across town, for we didn’t have a car.
- Should we go to dinner, or should we see a movie?
- She didn’t like fruit, nor did she like vegetables.
- Today was their anniversary, so they went on a date.
- I wanted to know why, yet my brother didn’t care.
A dependent clause can’t stand alone because it doesn’t form a complete thought.
Correct: The dog whined at the table while I was eating.
Incorrect: The dog whined at the table, while I was eating.
By adding the comma, you’re splitting up the sentence into two parts.
Incorrect: The dog whined at the table. While I was eating.
Splitting this up doesn’t work. The first part (The dog whined at the table) can stand alone. It has a subject (dog) and a verb (whined) and forms a complete thought—
—The second part (while I was eating) can’t stand alone. While I was eating what? It leaves us hanging and doesn’t form a complete thought. It’s depending on the first part of the sentence to make sense.
Why do we even care about “while I was eating” then? It adds relevant information to the first part of the sentence. It tells us what was happening while I was eating.
WATCH OUT FOR: Don’t automatically insert commas when you see a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet).
Don’t put a comma after the main clause when a dependent clause follows it.
Correct: Mom said the road was closed and that I shouldn’t drive on it.
Incorrect: Mom said that the road was closed, and that I shouldn’t drive on it.
Why are these not two independent clauses? The main clause (Mom said the road was closed) is an independent clause in that it has a subject and a verb and forms a complete thought. But the context is lost without the dependent clause (and that I shouldn’t drive on it).
We need both parts to fully understand the meaning of the sentence. We need both parts because Mom said both things.
Exception: Use a comma if you’re going for an extreme contrast and want the reader to notice.
Correct: Dad was still quite upset that I was two hours late, even though I promised to come straight home.
Clauses with Compound Subjects, Objects, or Predicates
Don’t freak out. Remember, a subject is just a noun, a predicate is just a verb, an object is just the noun receiving the action. And compound means more than one.
Don’t put a comma between two compound subjects. Watch for more than one noun doing the same action.
Correct: The cat on the street and the dog in the shelter are both looking for a forever home.
Incorrect: The cat on the street, and the dog in the shelter are both looking for a forever home.
Incorrect: The cat on the street, and the dog in the shelter, are both looking for a forever home.
Why? Neither “the cat on the street” or “the dog in the shelter” are complete thoughts. They’re compound subjects. And they both need the same thing—a home.