When Commas Give You Migraines

As a writer, there have been times where I prided myself on my ability to simply know where commas go. However, since working in the Writing Center, I’ve had to scale back on my pride and actually study comma rules. It’s hard to help someone work on comma placement when you can only answer their questions with “well…I just know.” Not only does this make me sound pretentious, but it can also give me less credibility. I’m here to say I have learned, along with the writers who look to my fellow consultants and I for help, a few comma rules. Below are just a few  basic and advanced rules to help you out when you get stuck with commas.

1. Use a comma to separate independent clauses that are joined by “and,” “but,” “for,” “or,” “nor,” “so,” and “yet.” Here’s an example: Today I had to study for history, but tonight I’ll focus on biology.”

2. Use a comma writing a series of three or more words. Here’s an example: “Today I had to take finals for chemistry, biology, and history.”

3. Use a comma if the word “and” can be placed between two adjectives. For example, “Josh Hutcherson is the young, handsome actor in The Hunger Games.” You could also say “Josh Hutcherson is the young and handsome actor in The Hunger Games.”

4. Use a comma to set off a part of a sentence called “the parenthetical element.” Here’s an example sentence that uses the parenthetical element: “The professor, who got his Ph.D at Harvard, teaches history at the University of Maryland.” The phrase “who got his Ph.D at Harvard” can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, you will put commas around the phrase.

5. When quoting a source. This is essential for your essays and research papers. If you are introducing the quote, a comma comes before the quoted material, like so: When reviewing the show “Bates Motel,” Kalie Gipson writes, “The best part of the show is the perfect casting. Freddie Highmore not only looks like a young Norman Bates, but he acts like him too.”

(Side note: when using “that,” a comma is unnecessary. “Gipson writes that “‘Bates Motel’ proves to be a worthy precursor to Hitchcock’s horror story.'”

These barely begin to touch the many comma rules we are supposed write and live by. Knowing when to use commas, as well as when to refrain from using them, is one of the most difficult aspects of punctuation and style. I will bet money that I misused a comma somewhere in this post. With so many rules, it’s easy to do! Don’t fret, because I’m including some helpful sources I’ve used and recommend to writers I work with in the Writing Center.





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