How to use commas accurately.
Of the many punctuations employed in writing, commas are one of the most used. However, there seem to be some difficulty when it comes to using commas; this is really not our fault because we were taught to use commas wherever there is a pause. No wonder a good number of amateur writing is riddled with them. Missing commas or misplaced commas can cause a huge misunderstanding; heck, some have cost an outrageous amount of money.
We begin our comma series with a common comma ‘crime’ committed in writing and how it can be corrected.
- Comma Splice: It is the placement of a comma, instead of a full stop, between two independent clauses. It is also known as run-on sentence—a common comma mistake made by many inexperienced writers.
Inaccurate: The director issued the queries, everyone was shocked.
Accurate: The director issued the queries. Everyone was shocked.
Accurate: The director issued the queries, and everyone was shocked.
Accurate: After the director issued the queries, everyone was shocked.
- Using comma with subordinate clauses
Subordinate clauses add information to the main clause; they are the parts of the sentence that start with subordinating conjunctions such as although, as if, after, as long as, despite, etc. Examples of subordinate clauses are; as if it were, despite the closure, after the ceremony, etc.
An omitted comma after a subordinate clause is a common occurrence in any kind of script. The placement of a comma with subordinate clauses is quite simple: if the subordinate clause precedes the main clause, it should be followed by a comma.
Inaccurate: If he finishes you can continue.
Accurate: If he finishes, you can continue.
On the other hand, if the subordinate clause comes after the main clause, there is no need for comma:
Inaccurate: You can continue, if he finishes.
Accurate: You can continue if he finishes.
EXCEPT the subordinate clause contains the subordinating conjunctions “whereas” and “although” then you need the comma:
Accurate: You can continue, although he isn’t finished.
Accurate: Although he isn’t finished, you can continue.
Accurate: We can’t throw a party, whereas exams are scheduled for next week.
Inaccurate: We can’t throw a party whereas exams are scheduled for next week.
- Using Comma with Introductory Adverbs.
Adverbs provide some information to verbs or wholes sentences. Examples are ‘quickly’, ‘often’, ‘frequently’, ‘sometimes’, etc.
When using an adverb to modify a sentence or an independent clause that follows the adverb, you should always use a comma after the introductory adverb.
Inaccurate: Apparently he did not see the dog.
Accurate: Apparently, he did not see the dog.
Inaccurate: Slowly he pulled over to inspect his tyres.
Accurate: Slowly, he pulled over to inspect his tyres.
- Placing the comma before “and”
When “and” functions as a coordinating conjunction, it is grammatically accurate to place a comma before the “and”. It acting as a coordinating conjunction means that it is splitting two independent clauses A comma is also needed before “and” when the comma is being used as an Oxford comma ( this is explained in a separate post).
“And” can be used in three ways in a sentence:
- To separate items in a list.
Correct: Forks and spoons, or women and children.
2. To separate two independent clauses. This means that if you remove the “and”, you will be left with two complete sentences.
Correct: The weather is warm, and I like it. In this case, there are two independent clauses that can form sentences on their own when separated. We could write: The weather is warm. and I like it.
Some writers may decide to omit the comma if both sentences are short. However, to be safe, we advise that you use it if you are not sure.
3. To separate two dependent clauses. This means should the “and” be taken away, then you would not have two complete sentences.
However, if we write: The weather is warm and humid, it makes one-half of the sentence an independent clause and the other half a dependent clause, because “and humid” is not a complete sentence.
Correct: The weather is warm and humid.
Incorrect: The weather is warm, and humid.
In some instances, we may place a comma before a conjunction such as “and” when it begins a dependent clause. In this case, we are using the comma as an Oxford comma (also known as a serial comma). The conjunction must separate the third item in the list.
Eg: Joan learned, worked, and bagged a first class.
Correct: I ate breakfast, cleaned all day, and went ahead to cook. (as an Oxford comma)
Incorrect: I ate breakfast, and went ahead to cook. (not an Oxford comma)
When/where to use a comma with “because”.
“Because” is a subordinating conjunction in most cases; therefore, it is not preceded by a comma when it begins a dependent clause after the main clause. Nonetheless, there are two exceptions to the rule:
- In situations where the independent clause that precedes “because” has a negative verb (eg. Wouldn’t, don’t, can’t…)
Example: She wouldn’t go to school because of the rainstorm.
This example is not clear because the reader is not sure whether it was the rainstorm that caused her to skip school, or some unknown factor.
Eg. “She wouldn’t go to school because of the rainstorm, but because she wasn’t feeling too well.”
If you meant to say that the rainstorm wasn’t the reason for her skipping school, the it might be best to rewrite it as, “The rainstorm didn’t cause her to skip school”. If you mean that she skipped school because of the rainstorm, then you should include a comma.
Accurate: She wouldn’t go to school, because of the rainstorm.
Inaccurate: She wouldn’t go to school because of the rainstorm (ambiguous).
Accurate: I didn’t get the job, because of the embargo.
Inaccurate: I didn’t get the job because of the embargo (ambiguous).
- In situations where the independent clause preceding “because” has two elements and we are not sure which one “because” refers to.
An example of when there are two elements in the independent clause that precede ‘because’ and the dependent clause could refer to either one:
I bet you sent the email because Prof. Coleman called you last night.
Did you send the email because Prof. Coleman called last night? Or did I think you sent the email because Prof Coleman called you last night and you hinted to her that you might?
NB: These ambiguous constructions should be avoided as much as possible. Ambiguity makes your work a difficult read.
When/where to use a comma with ” adjectives “.
A comma should be used between two adjectives when they are coordinate adjectives—two or more adjectives that describe the same noun equally.
You can put “and” between two coordinate adjectives or swap their order and the meaning remains the same.
Example: The tall, beautiful girl. “Tall” and “beautiful” are both adjectives that describe the noun “girl”. The sentence could be rewritten as, “The tall and beautiful girl” or “The beautiful, tall girl”.
The meaning is retained in all these instances.
Cumulative adjectives are not separated by a comma because they build on each other, and they cannot be re-ordered or split with “and”.
Example: dull blue paint.
The sentence above cannot be rewritten as “dull and blue paint” or “blue dull paint”. Coordinate adjectives in a sentence are equally relevant, hence they are separated by a comma. However, cumulative adjectives aren’t equally relevant and so they are not separated by a comma.
NB: Only use a comma to separate two adjectives if you could also write “and” between the two adjectives and the sentence retains its meaning.
Accurate: The long, clay artwork sat gracefully on the shelf.
Inaccurate: The long clay artwork sat gracefully on the shelf.
Accurate: The soft blue colour looked cool.
Inaccurate: The soft, blue colour looked cool.