How to use commas

Why learn how to use commas?

Commas don’t bite. They are your friends, so take a few mintues to learn how to use them correctly. Not Because It’s Important. Not Because The Rules Of Grammar And Punctuation Say You Must (note the capital letters).

You should learn how to use commas properly so that your writing is as clear as possible to the reader…which is the whole point of writing anything.

Why do we need commas?

Commas, like all punctuation marks, are used to help readers understand what you’ve written.

The most common reasons we use commas are to:

  • avoid confusion
  • separate items in a list
  • separate an introductory part of a sentence and
  • make a complex sentence more readable.

Commas avoid confusion

Read this sentence: ‘He was not run over, mercifully.’

As it’s written, with the comma, it means ‘It was a mercy (blessing) he was not run over.’ So, the writer is saying he, whoever he was, had a lucky escape.

However, if you take out the comma, it means ‘He was run over without mercy.’ So, the writer is saying that he was indeed run over and the person who did it had no qualms about doing it.

So, the meaning can change dramatically without a comma in the right place.

A couple of other common examples are:

1. ‘I love to cook my pets and my family.’

Of course, they don’t mean they enjoy canabalism and eating their pets. What they should have written was: ‘I love to cook, my pets and my family.’ which shows that they love these three things equally:

  • coooking
  • their pets
  • their family.

2. ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’

Again, they’re not suggesting we take a nibble on Nanna. What they should have written was, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ which is a much nicer invitation to the table, especially for Grandma.

Commas separate items in lists

In current Australian useage, we use commas to separate every item in a list except for the last one. For example, ‘I bought plums, pears and peaches today.’

Of course, you may not be Australian or were taught to use the Oxford comma, in which case you would add another comma after ‘pears’ in the sentence above.

Commas separate introductory parts of a sentence

A comma is useful here so the reader knows which parts of the sentence are explanatory or introductory and which parts have the central information.

For example, ‘Unfortunately, the house was freezing when I got there.’

The main part of the sentence is that the house was freezing, and the first part, the word ‘unfortunately’, tells you what the writer wasn’t happy that the house was cold when they got home.

Commas make complex sentences more readable and include information in parentheses (just as brackets do)

Sometimes when you create a long or complex sentence, it’s hard to know which parts of the sentence relate to another, which is where commas come in. They can also be useful to put parts of a sentence in parentheses (just as brackets do).

The following sentence uses commas in both these ways:

‘This medication may, if used incorrectly, cause harm to babies and young children, so please consult your doctor for advice before giving to persons under the age of five.’

You could also have written ‘if used incorrectly’ in brackets, but the writer has chosen to use commas instead so as not to distrupt the flow of the sentence. Note that the writer has used two commas to separate the information they want to highlight. It’s important if you’re using commas instead of brackets that you use a pair of commas…just as you would use a pair of brackets or parentheses.

The third comma (after ‘children’) is used to break up the sentence and help the reader make sense of what’s been written. It’s highlighting the important information that parents should talk to their doctor before giving that medication to infants.

Commas really don’t bite.

They can be your friends if used properly.

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