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.




Style Tips from the Pants-less Guru: How to make your Writing Look and Feel Better


As we come to the scene of a man in his early twenties sitting in front of a computer, wearing nothing but briefs, tall socks, and a BU t-shirt that he is staining with a pizza slice, our reaction might be one of incredulity upon hearing that he will be giving us style advice. Nevertheless, we must not let our assumptions get the best of us nor judge a shirt by its pizza stains (or something like that…).  Rather, we should open our minds and consider some of the sage-like advice that this pants-less guru has to offer. Listen! He has put down his slice of pizza and is about to speak…wait, no…he’s just chewing…O.K., now he’s ready–

(the guru pat his stomach, smiles contentedly, and begins)

“A quick and easy way to make your writing more stylish is to avoid excessively long paragraphs. Often, writers in the feverish pace to put their ideas on the page forget to think what it will look like to readers, and so leave entire pages carpeted by a single paragraph. Such large chunks o’ words will not fall easily on readers’ eyes, making them feel intimidated if not frustrated, which in turn leads them to kick the nearest small animal (or whatever it is those twisted monsters do to vent). So, to be a part of the solution and combat small animal abuse, break up any frighteningly large paragraphs, generally trying not to let them run too much over half a page. A good way of helping yourself with this is to be sure that there is only one main idea per paragraph, meaning that it should be as focused as possible and rid of any unnecessary details. Many times, this can be as simple as breaking one especially long paragraph into two. In any case, the best way to improve your writing style is to be clear and concise while communicating to a reader, which overly long paragraphs obstruct.”

(the guru pauses to take another bite of pizza)

“Extremely lengthy sentences present a similar style problem as well. Like long paragraphs, they make it difficult for readers to follow, exhausting their ability to process and organize the ideas being presented. This again distracts readers by making them so angry that they kick something small and defenseless (readers are cruel, cruel people, which is all the more reason you should listen to this advice). Therefore, an effective solution to prevent this is to keep an average sentence within the range of about twenty to thirty words. Of course, you do not have to hold exactly to this rule; in fact, a variety of shorter and longer sentences helps create a style that keeps readers engaged. Still, twenty to thirty words is a good average of measure.”

“To go along with this, when perfecting the style of your writing, word choice should always be at the forefront of your attention. This is especially true when considering whether you are writing informally or formally. For example, because I am not wearing pants right now, we can safely consider this to be an informal situation. Therefore, I am allowed to directly address the reader (“you”) as well as use the personal “I” and contractions. However, in more formal writing situations (ones that usually involve pants, and perhaps even a belt), you should be aware that the use of such words is often frowned upon, as would be slang or colloquialisms. Moreover, a formal writing style demands precise language, requiring you to avoid using words such as “stuff,” “things,” or “very.” These words are so broad and have been used so often that their meanings have been dulled, making them what is infamously known as “fluff” words. They’ll make your writing look longer, but not better, especially in a formal setting.”

(the guru stretches with an enormous yawn and curls up on the floor, using an empty pizza box as a pillow)

Ah, well! It appears our style guru is done for the day. Being such a sage and eating so much pizza in one sitting can be exhausting, I’m sure. Heed his advice! Avoid long paragraphs and sentences so that your reader is not overwhelmed and confused. Also, be sure that your word choice is appropriate for the style of writing you are attempting. Now, we must go (he’s starting to snore). Watch your step for any stray leftover pizza slices  on your way out.

Until next time,