I was told in high school that my essays were a little too “comma crazy.” At the time, I had no idea what the hell that meant. I didn’t even realize that I used that many commas. Then I stopped and realized that I didn’t even know how to use a goddamn comma. I was just throwing them in there, willy-nilly. Oops, I did it again!
I was making the common mistake of using commas in my writing as conversational breaks in my sentences. I will explain this a little later, but first a word on commas.
Commas and periods are the two most frequently used forms of punctuations. Typically, commas are used to create a pause. They are not as severe as a period, which stops the whole sentence altogether. Commas can be used for separation of adjectives, to fix run-on sentences, to join two or more independent clauses with a conjunction, or to list or group things as I just did. Lets go into detail about how exactly to use this little guy.
This really only works when the adjectives are interchangeable, but it is typically used to provide an extra detail about something.
Example: She is a beautiful, intelligent woman.
Or She is an intelligent, beautiful woman.
The comma is only correct here when the two adjectives are interchangeable.
Fixing Run-On Sentences
As an English teacher I see run-on sentences quite a bit. Commas are often used incorrectly here, resulting in what is called a comma splice. It looks like this:
INCORRECT – He ran all the way to school, he jumped into his seat.
CORRECT – After running all the way to school, he jumped into his seat
The problem here is that there are two independent clauses or ideas. We need to separate these, but we need to rearrange the sentence so that it is not two ideas spliced by a comma. This can also be solved by using a conjunction or connector.
Separating Independent Clauses with a Conjunction
This is easy. If there is a conjunction there is almost always a comma preceding it.
INCORRECT – He ran all the way to school and he jumped into his seat.
CORRECT – He ran all the way to school, and he jumped into his seat.
Using Commas to Group Items
When listing three or more things it is important to use a comma after each term with the exception of the last.
Example: red, white, and blue
He opened the letter, read it, and threw it away.
The exception here is when listing names of businesses. In this case you would omit the comma before the conjunction.
Example: Brown, Davidson and Smith
Use Commas after words that Introduce
Here is where many people overuse commas. Commas can be used as casual pauses in your sentences after an introductory word like “Well” or “Yes” or “Hello.”
Example: Hello, my name is Cesar.
Why, I can’t believe this.
Yes, I will be happy to teach you grammar lessons.
This is where I personally overused, and misused, commas. Parenthetic expressions can be broken up with a comma. When you are interrupting your sentence with a separate but related thought, then it is a good idea to use a comma.
Example: The best way to see the country, unless you are pressed for time, is on foot.
This is a great example from Elements of Style by Strunk and White. The commas here are used for brief interruptions in the flow of the sentence. What makes this confusing, at least to me in high school, is that this is often the way that we speak conversationally. People frequently interrupt themselves and even more frequently add little commentary in the middle of their thoughts. Thus, my papers and essays were comma catastrophes. Be careful with this rule. The parenthetic comma should only be used for slight interruptions, not complete tangents.
I just gave you all of the rules, but your natural ability and learned experiences will make you put commas wherever you damn well please. So, if it feels like you need a comma, then you will probably put one there, although, you might be misusing this little punctuation punk.