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The Editing Hour: The Comma

When I’m editing, one of the most common mistakes I see is the absence or misplacement of the comma. People, put commas, in places they don’t belong and they leave commas out of places they do belong. There ARE rules for when, and when not, to use commas. Here they are:

When to use a comma:

1. Before a coordinating conjunction, or FANBOY: The words for, and, nor, but, or and yet or coordinating conjunctions. They link two independent clauses with a comma. For example, “I want a cup of tea, but I also want a glass of water.” “I want a cup of tea” is an independent clause, as is, “I also want a glass of water.” Words like “and,” however, are not ALWAYS coordinating conjunctions. If I write, “I want a cup of tea and a glass of water,” there is no comma.

2. In a series: When you list three or more items in a series, use commas to separate them. Whether you use a comma before the “and” is a stylistic choice. Just makes sure you are consistent with that choice. If you use it once, always use it. For example, “I love to eat bananas, apples and oranges” and “I love to eat bananas, apples, and oranges” or both correct.

In a series of two or more adjectives: Use a comma if the word “and” could be placed between the two adjectives and if the sentence still makes sense when the adjectives are reversed. Eg: “She at a gooey, delicious cupcake” and “She at a delicious, gooey cupcake” both work, but “She ate ten chocolate cupcakes” doesn’t make sense when you reverse it to read, “She ate chocolate ten cupcakes” so no comma is needed between “ten” and “chocolate.”

3. With attributions: “I’ll have the chocolate cake,” she said. There’s a comma before “she said.” In reverse: She said, “I’ll have the chocolate cake.” Also, “I’ll have the chocolate cake,” she said, “and then I’ll have the apple pie.”

4. To set off introductory elements. Use a comma after an introductory adverb clause: “Although I love chocolate, I’m going to order the crème caramel tonight.” Use a comma after an introductory phrase: “In order to make peanut brittle, you need a candy thermometer,” and “Sure, I’d love a pain au chocolat with my 1500-calorie mocha milkshake.”

5. To set off nonessential elements: “Chocolate chip cookies, which are full of butter, are not good for your diet.” In this case, the middle part could be removed and the meaning of the sentence wouldn’t change. However, if I say, “Chocolate chip cookies that have nuts are not good for your diet” we don’t need commas because “that have nuts” is essential to the meaning of the sentence. We’re not talking about all chocolate chip cookies, just those with nuts.

6. Titles, degrees dates, addresses and long numbers: Other times you use a comma: “Meghan Ward, PhD, who lives at 1000 Writerland Street, Berkeley, CA, is going to turn 10,000 years old on January 1, 2010.” None of that’s true, but you get the idea.

7. To avoid confusion: When a sentence is confusing without a comma, use one. For example “If you can run to the store for me” sounds like an incomplete sentence until you add a comma: “If you can, run to the store for me.”

When NOT to use a comma:

1. Between two independent clauses: “I love cats, however I love dogs more.” This is a comma splice. The correct version is: “I love cats; however, I love dogs more.”

2. Around restrictive elements: “The song, Jingle Bells, is a Christmas classic” is wrong. The correct sentence is, “The song Jingle Bells is a Christmas classic” Why? Because if you remove “Jingle Bells,” the meaning of the sentence changes.

3. Before “because”: “I am going to Hawaii because I need a vacation” is correct.

4. Between a verb and an indirect quotation: “I promised that I would string the popcorn for the tree” is correct. Incorrect: “I promised, that I would string the popcorn for the tree.”

Other examples of when not to use a comma include between a subject and its predicate, between a verb and is complement or direct object, between a preposition and its object, between an adjective and the word or phrase it modifies, between certain paired elements, and before an adverb clause that falls at the end of a sentence. If you stick to the rules of WHEN TO USE a comma above, you should be fine!

8 comments to The Editing Hour: The Comma

  • Great review. I have a question on number one though. I follow that rule, but my crit group often cuts out my comma when I'm using two independent clauses and a coordinating conjuction. Are there times when it's not appropriate to use a comma in that situation–like if the two independent clauses or on the short side?

  • Meghan Ward

    Roni, great to see you here. I love your blog! And shame on your critique group! The only time you'd eliminate the comma between two independent clauses if if the clauses are REALLY short, like, "Seek and you shall find."

  • HA! Vindicated. 😉 Thanks! And glad to find your blog. I came here by way of Sierra originally. 🙂

  • Just noticed you linked to me in your sidebar, thanks for that!

  • Meghan Ward

    You're welcome! 🙂

  • Another fab post Meghan and I love the title. This will have to go in the Friday Roundup.

    You have an award on my blog.

  • And can I also that I believe you need the serial comma in writing that is to be published. I think (but would love to have this confirmed) that we follow Chicago Manual of Style when we write fiction or narrative. NOT AP Style, which does not use the serial comma.

    And in defense of the serial comma, I would like to say that using the comma is so much more CLEAR to your readers. It's the whole "eats, shoots, and leaves" situation. What do you MEAN? Use the comma to make it clear what you mean. PLEASE for the love of God! Most every manuscript I critique drops it.

  • Meghan Ward


    I need to research this more since both my CMS and Eats, Shoots, and Leaves are at work and I'm home sick this week, but you're probably right that it's AP style to drop the comma and CMS to keep it in. I was a journalist for three years, which would explain why I drop it. However, I think in creative writing you can make a lot of stylistic choices that go against the rules of composition. That's what makes it creative 🙂 And thanks for the dingdong award! 🙂