This is a little essay I had in a Bobbing Around in 2015.
Here it is again, because I am getting quite a few comma problems while editing the submissions to my free book edit contest (deadline 15th Oct.).
In my work as an editor, I get comatose over the more comma mistakes. They are all too common.
Where you need one
Between items of a list.
“Man bride and accompanying crowd came out of the church.” This is possible in a gay marriage, but the intention may have been, “Man, bride, and accompanying crowd came out of the church.”
A clause is a sort of a sub-sentence. There are various kinds, but have one thing in common. You need a comma to show where one ends and the next begins. The comma after “kinds” in the previous sentence is an example.
Note that you use a COMMA for this, not a semicolon.
Before and after interpolations.
“Hey George, where have you been?” The comma is there because “Hey George” is an address (no, he doesn’t live there, but is being addressed, and no, he is not an envelope). An address is one form of interpolation. Others are bits and bobs you can stick into a sentence that don’t actually affect its meaning. “I was dreaming, I suppose.” Some interpolations say something about a verb or noun: “He ran, faster than the bus, but still failed to catch the aeroplane.” “The girl, who had red hair and blue lips, huddled close to the fire.”
There is an intercontinental debate about some of these commas. In America, it is a mortal mistake to omit this one: “She insisted on coming, too.” In the rest of the English-speaking world, “too” doesn’t need to be preceded by a comma.
Where you should not have one
Between parts of a sentence. If two elements of writing only make sense because they belong together, they should not have a comma between them.
“The horribly distorted face of the furiously shouting constable, was almost a beetroot colour.” This is a wordy version of “His face was purple.” This sentence has a subject (his face), verb (was) and object (purple). If you remove any of these elements, it is no longer a sentence. So, there should be no comma before ‘was,’ whether it’s the short or the expanded version.
Here is an example from a contest for copywriters, who should have known better: “Britain is known for being a land of slogans and over the years many extremely well paid agencies, have come up with several slogans for London, none of them memorable however.” Not only is this ungrammatical and convoluted, but also has a comma between subject and verb. Oh well, no one, is perfect.
This prohibition is in contrast to a part of a sentence that is not grammatically essential. “Of course, this is true.” The sentence is, “This is true.” To indicate that “of course” is an extra bit, you delimit it with a comma.
One reason for the difficulty some people experience is that sometimes an interpolation precedes the verb. The end of the interpolation DOES need a comma, and to the uninformed eye, that may look like a comma before the verb. Well it is, but it belongs to the interpolation, not to the main sentence: “The man, feeling particularly preoccupied, bumped into a lamppost.”
Where it is optional
If you want a big argument about a little issue, ask whether you need a comma before the ‘and’ that introduces the last item in a list. This is the “Oxford comma.”
My answer is, if Oxford the comma improves clarity or reduces confusion, put it in. If it doesn’t, leave it off.
“A beggar, a blogger, a bumptious blimp and a beautiful bimbo had a conversation in a bar.” I see no point in a comma after “blimp,” because it’s perfectly clear that the next item in the list is coming. However, if the last item is long enough to need work for determining its start and end, e.g., “…a beautiful bimbo with bounteous boobs,” then I’d happily put it in.
And the technical bits
You might notice, I’ve put a comma after “e.g.” Same goes for thingies like “i.e.”
“31st July, 2015,” or even in the silly back-to-front way “July 31st, 2015” are commatised.
“Harry Smith” is commaless, but “Smith, Harry” isn’t unless the name is from a culture in which the surname comes first: Ban Ki-moon is Mr Ban, not Mr Ki-Moon.
Now that you’ve read this piece,
You can punctuate with ease.
The comma’s a part
Of the writing art,
So, come on, get it right, please!