I love commas. Ask anyone who has read my writing; I love commas. I have a comma bracelet. I’m wearing a comma necklace at this very moment. I have long dreamt of the perfect comma tattoo. Me and commas–we’ve got a thing going on.
However, as much as I wish it were possible, I cannot sprinkle my little punctuation darlings willy-nilly throughout my writing. There are rules about these things.
Quick Comma Rules
These are the quick and dirty, gotta-know-’em rules you should just read and commit to heart now:
1. Use a comma after an introductory word or phrase
Example 1: Suddenly, he walked into the wall beside the door.
Example 2: However, she remained unconvinced it was a good idea.
2. Use commas both before and after phrases containing nonessential information
Example 1: This blog, written by Banger, is very helpful.
Example 2: His biological mother, who gave birth to him, is a nice lady.
In these examples, the information within the commas is nonessential. It could be removed from the sentence and not change the overall meaning. Banger is the only person who writes this blog, therefore it is nonessential to name who writes it. (Although please, feel free. Tell your mother. Wake the neighbors.) In the second instance, a biological mother, except in extraordinary situations, is the person who gives birth to someone. Therefore, for 99.999% of instances, plus or minus an instance, it’s nonessential to indicate a biological mother gave birth to someone. Indeed, it would be critical to indicate if that were not the case.
3. Use commas to separate items in lists containing three or more things
Example 1: I need to purchase cream cheese, smoked salmon, and bagels.
Example 2: Graduate students like coffee, Diet Coke, and sleep.
Please note: I am a member of Team Oxford Comma as I feel that it adds to clarity in sentences. That last comma, the one before the and in both sentences, is an Oxford comma. Without it, sentences like this happen: To proofread, Banger likes a printout, blue and green highlighters and coffee.
WUT. Wait, I do not like blue and green coffee. Blue milk I can see, young Padawan, but not coffee.
This said, the Oxford comma is NOT usually used in the United Kingdom. I know. It’s ironic. Just go with me on this.
4. Use a comma to separate two interchangeable adjectives
Example 1: Writing is a fun, easy hobby.
Example 2: That smart, funny woman is my friend.
In both of those examples the order of the adjectives can be swapped without changing the meaning of the sentences, so they’re interchangeable adjectives, and they need a comma between them. If the adjectives cannot be swapped they are not interchangeable and should not have a comma between them.
5. Use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined with a conjunction
Example 1: The music was loud, and it could be heard all the way around the block.
Example 2: Her hair was curly, and it was tied back in a ribbon that had polka dots.
Both of these examples need both a comma and a conjunction. Why? Because they’re independent clauses. Independent clauses can be complete sentences by themselves. In example 1, we could make the following two sentences:
The music was loud. It could be heard all the way around the block.
If we just slapped a comma in there between those two, we’d have a comma splice–where two sentences are joined with a comma and without a conjunction. It’d be:
The music was loud, it could be heard all the way around the block.
We could theoretically write it with the conjunction and without the comma, as the clauses are short, giving us the following:
The music was loud and it could be heard all the way around the block.
However, if either of those clauses were longer, skipping the comma wouldn’t work. It’s best to just use the comma.
6. Use a comma before dialogue (and before a break in dialogue)
Example 1: He said, “My goodness, that was an unspeakably bad pecan pie.”
Example 2: “I must know,” the professor said, “how you learned how to use commas so well!”
Those are what I consider the most critical comma rules to remember. There are others–oh yes, there are so many others–but many of them are to do with how names, addresses, and dates are handled, or get pretty in-depth and specific. These few basic rules will get you through most of your work.
Go forth and punctuate, young Padawan.