Commas: Are Those Little Things Dangling Into the Next Line Causing You to Lose Sleep?

“Who gives a *bleep* about an Oxford Comma?”- Vampire Weekend, Oxford Comma.


Picture of a Comma

The Comma: Know It, Love It

The comma, is a very, very, tricky, punctuation mark, to use, but, what’s even worse is when it’s used improperly such as in the first part of this sentence, it makes things very hard, to read. The preceeding sentence is an example of terrible comma misuse and outright abuse. But the rules for using a comma are quite complicated.

Now, this is partly because of what the comma signifies: a short pause. When we talk, we usually talk in bursts of between three to seven words. So if the comma signifies a short pause, we should sprinkle our writing with them, right? Not quite. Commas actually have a fairly specific usage guidelines and are usually just there to clarify something.

One very common joke is the distinction between “Let’s eat, Grandma,” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” The comma in the first sentence specifies the target of the sentence, effectively saying, “Grandma, let us eat.” However, the second implies that the object of the verb “eat” is Grandma and therefore supports cannibalism and matricide, which isn’t a very good idea (usually).

Another use for the comma is in lists. For example, “I ate potato chips, yogurt, and a sandwich for lunch today.” The comma separates each item from the next. There are exceptions to this rule and one very prominent option. The final comma before the conjunction (also known as the Oxford comma) is optional unless it clarifies the list. For example, “I ate potato chips, yogurt and a sandwich,” is just as correct as the original example. However, “I ate grapes, mac and cheese, and a sandwich,” is clearer with the Oxford comma and it should be used.

The most common use of the comma is to separate phrases and clauses. If one of the clauses is dependent (it is not a complete sentence), you need to add a comma between the sentences. However, if the two phrases are independent and you join them with only a comma, you’ve made a mistake. (Example: The brush is on my desk, it is black and brown.)  This is called a comma splice and makes grammarians very unhappy.

There are a few words that require commas all of the time. Anywhere these words are used, they must be closed in by a comma: therefore, however, in fact, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore, instead, and therefore. There are a few additional single words, plus a whole bunch of 2, 3 and 4 word phrases that also require a comma.

Our general advice for dealing with commas? Use fewer unless your statement is ambiguous. Just because commas symbolize a pause doesn’t mean that they are inserted at every pause. Nor does a long sentence require a comma just because it is long. There’s been a trend toward fewer and fewer commas in English. To make sure you’re set, have someone else read the text. If they get confused by something, see if you need a comma. At Atlas Signs and Plaques, we proofread the text for signs, but the customer has the final say. Use your power wisely and consider a little research before you complete your sign order.

For more fantastic information about punctuation try going to our cutting edge posts, “Getting Naked with the Apostrophe“, “The Apostrophe – The Misunderstood Prince of Puctuation“, and “Quotation Marks“.

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