How to use commas

Compared with pondering the placement of the much less familiar semi-colon or the enigmatic apostrophe, the ubiquitous comma might seem hardly worth worrying about. They’re ten a penny, aren’t they? Why not just sprinkle them at will or leave them out entirely?

Unsurprisingly, we don’t recommend doing either. They may seem a common or garden item of punctuation, but – just like the elderly in society – we can learn much from commas and should treat them with respect.

So, use them:

•      to denote a natural pause, such as if you were reading aloud

Unfortunately, commas are often underrated.

•      after a secondary clause that’s been put at the beginning of a sentence

Although the comma had been left out of the speech, he still paused for dramatic effect.

•      to separate items in a list

My job involves typing, proofreading, answering the phone and stocktaking commas.

I’m looking for a tall, dark, handsome lover of punctuation.

•      to make it clear exactly how items are split (to avoid confusion, usually when the word ‘and’ is involved in the list)

The courses on offer were Introduction to colons, Intensive comma revision, Hyphens and dashes, and Figures and numbers.

•      in pairs, for information additional to the main point (that could be lifted out to leave a sentence that still makes complete sense)

The phone call, which lasted ten minutes, was mostly about Mary’s incorrect use of punctuation.

However, the information contained by the two commas has to be ‘non-defining’ (not vital to the overall gist of the sentence); if it is ‘defining’, you would use no commas at all:

The phone call that was about Mary’s poor punctuating was full of awkward pauses.

•      to introduce short quotes

He said, ‘Let’s take a short break here.’

Changing sense

Given the often ambiguous nature of our language, it is important to give pause to where you place your commas. Otherwise you may end up saying something other than you intended, or leaving your reader rather confused. Compare:

However, you might feel the report is irrelevant [and we may take that into consideration]

with

However you might feel, the report is irrelevant [your opinion doesn’t really matter].

Or

I donated, myself, to that charity [I, like you, am a philanthropist]

and

I donated myself to that charity [not sure how much use they’ll have for me].

Or even

The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we [that's why the Common is so tidy]

and

The Wombles of Wimbledon, common are we [can’t move for wombles while watching the tennis].

Commas can make subtle distinctions too. Observe the nuances:

Our boss, who is based in Basingstoke, will be at that seminar

and

Our boss who is based in Basingstoke will be at that seminar.

In the first example, there is only one boss. He may be based in Basingstoke, but that is not vital information (it is ‘non-defining’). The main point is that he’ll be at the seminar. In the second example, there are presumably several bosses. But it is specifically the one lucky enough to be based in Basingstoke who will attend the seminar.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: punctuation matters. Particularly if you want your writing to end up meaning what you meant it to.

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