Tag: punctuation

Commas Rule! Common Comma Rules and Tips

Hayley Salo, Writing Consultant

There are a ton of guides to comma rules, so I won’t spend this entire blog post rewording what those rules are. Instead, I’d like to take the time to go through the most common mistakes and discuss ways to identify, correct, and avoid them. This will require a bit of rule discussion, but bear with me.

Connecting Complete Sentences

There are multiple ways to connect complete sentences, and commas are certainly one of them! However, this is also where most comma mistakes are made, including comma splices and many run-on sentences. So, what’s the deal? Why is this part so hard?

Well, we tend to talk differently than we write; the pauses we make while speaking often do not match the pauses we grammatically require. Although this goes against the age-old advice of “read your work out loud,” it’s true! Reading your work out loud is a great way to catch comma mistakes that you are already familiar with, but it’s less effective at helping you catch the really tricky mistakes, including comma splices.

For instance, if we read the following sentence out loud, it sounds pretty normal:

Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple.

But so does this sentence:

Sally went to the store and she bought an apple.

The comma here is very hard to hear. Since the “and” tells us how the sentences are connected, it’s easy to assume that the “and” implies the pause, too. However, we need both the comma and the “and” for this sentence to be grammatically correct (Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple).

Since it’s hard to spot the missing comma while just reading an essay, it’s helpful to proofread one sentence at a time. Take the time to divide long sentences into two or more shorter sentences. Then, proof the punctuation by referring to the rules and recombining the sentence. The example above can be divided into two completely separate sentences:

Sally went to the store. She bought an apple.

Once we have the sentence divided, we can check the comma rules for how to connect complete sentences. We would see that we need both a comma and a connecting word, so we would know to combine the sentences into the following:

Sally went to the store, and she bought an apple.

This process of dividing sentences will become very important once the sentences get more complex.

Lists

Lists can be surprisingly difficult to proofread, and there are even two correct ways to punctuate the same list! Long, complex lists can be challenging because it’s hard for writers and readers alike to separate all of the ideas. As a result, dividing lists into shorter, simpler sentences is a great way to proofread. Let’s look at a simple first example before getting into a tougher one.

Correct: I like to walk, hike, and swim.

Correct: I like to walk, hike and swim.

Incorrect: I like to walk, hike, swim.

The first correct version uses the “Oxford comma,” which is just the optional comma before the “and.” The second correct version does not use that optional comma. The key here is that “and” is always required between the second to last and last list items, no matter how long or complex the list is.

As I mentioned earlier, we can divide lists into shorter, simpler sentences:

Correct: I like to walk. I like to hike. I like to swim.

This division makes it easier to see that “walk,” “hike,” and “swim” are all things I like to do. As a result, they are all part of the same list. But what happens when lists get more . . . listy?

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, and coffee and tea.

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies and coffee and tea.

Incorrect: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, coffee and tea.

In the above examples, we have lists within a list. The primary list is things I like. We can see this more easily by dividing the sentence:

I like dogs. I like cats. I like cake. I like cookies. I like coffee. I like tea.

Very few people want to read that many short sentences. However, they are equally unlikely to want to read this long of a list:

I like dogs, cats, cake, cookies, coffee, and tea.

In long lists like these ones, readers are likely to remember only the first or last list items and tune out the middle ones. This is where our original example, with more than one “and,” comes in. We can simplify that list to a lesser extent:

I like dogs and cats. I like cake and cookies. I like coffee and tea.

Now it’s easier to see the categories of things I like: animals, food, and drinks. So, what we really have is a list of three things I like, but within that list, there are two-item lists arranged by category. Sounds pretty abstract, right? But it’s so much easier to see when it’s divided up like we did above. Once we know that we have lists within a list, it’s easier to know that we need an “and” between items in each two-item list, a comma between each category, and a final “and” between the second to last and last two-item list:

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies, and coffee and tea.

Correct: I like dogs and cats, cake and cookies and coffee and tea.

Feel free to use or omit the Oxford comma.

Bottom line: lists can feel like a theoretical wormhole. Break them down into their smallest components and then carefully, deliberately, put them back together. We often write over-complicated lists in first drafts, so it’s up to us as later proofreaders to come back and fix them.

Optional Information

Generally speaking, optional information is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. However, sometimes it’s hard to tell what is optional and what isn’t, which makes proofreading for comma mistakes very difficult. The trick here is to determine if the sentence’s core meaning changes when the information is removed. Let’s look at a few examples:

The dictionary, which is blue, is on the table.

“Which is blue” is grammatically optional; we can take that part of the sentence out and still have a complete sentence with the same meaning:

The book is on the table.

Nothing fundamental about this sentence has changed. We are still talking about the same book and the same table.

However, some writers and readers may not consider that information optional in certain situations. Take the following situation, which takes place in a library with a ton of books scattered around the floor, shelves, and table:

Sally: I need you to look up a word for me.

James: Where do I find the dictionary?

Sally: The dictionary, which is blue, is on the table.

James certainly does need to know that the dictionary is both blue and on the table in order to efficiently find the dictionary. However, it still isn’t the main point of the sentence. James could still find the same dictionary without that specification.

Commas shouldn’t be used when the “that,” “which,” etc. section really does affect the meaning of the sentence:

The dictionary that I own is in bad shape.

This sentence is talking about the physical appearance of my personal dictionary. If we take out “that I own,” we get something very different:

The dictionary is in bad shape.

This sentence implies that someone needs to do some serious editing and save our dictionaries! Not the same as our first sentence at all, so skip the commas.

Summary

When working with commas, try these tips:

  1. Read the sentence out loud to get a general feeling for what it is saying and how it is saying it.
  2. Divide the sentence into shorter, simpler sentences.
  3. Look up the rule for the kind of sentence you’re working on.
  4. Apply the rule and carefully recombine the sentence.
  5. Proofread similar sentences in the paper one after another to practice the rules and methods.

Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: The Musical and Often Muddled Nature of Punctuation in the Writing Center

Michelle Day, Writing Consultant

Like all good children born in the ‘80s, I sang along with Schoolhouse Rock to learn language mechanics in school. But I wish I would have known about this little gem  by L.L. Cool J, a song in which the rapper suspends his usual lyrics in favor of a minute-long exposition on punctuation. Amid flying periods, commas, questions marks, and exclamation points, the rapper declares, “When you see a punctuation mark, you have to know what to do.”

The content of the video is particularly relevant in light of the 9th annual “National Punctuation Day,” which was Monday. I’m as intrigued as the next person by flying punctuation that obeys L.L. Cool J’s every rhythmic command. However, his refrain, that “you have to know what to do” with punctuation, may mislead writers to think controlling punctuation is as intuitive as L.L. makes it seem. At the Writing Center, we see it differently.

Richard Nordquist, English scholar, professor and writer, writes that the origin of punctuation was for oral—not written—purposes. In ancient Greece and Rome, punctuation denoted how long a speaker should pause when reading out loud (the comma was the shortest mark, while the period was the longest). After the rise of printing, the importance of punctuation became less about speaking and more about writing and proper syntactical relationships. Writers like playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century began to codify the use of punctuation, and today, there are countless style guides and witty-sounding books on grammar that teach often-competing punctuation conventions. (Read Nordquist’s full article here.)

This last point is particularly relevant to our work at the Writing Center. Our clients—even graduate students with strong writing skills—are often unclear on issues as seemingly simple as when to use a comma. Sometimes, it’s because they don’t quite understand tricks teachers have taught them (“put commas wherever you would pause when speaking” is one of the more commonly misapplied tricks). Sometimes, they’re confused by the competing rules they’ve heard from different instructors. Other times, they’ve never been told how to punctuate a quotation correctly or connect complete sentences without creating a run on (or perhaps they weren’t paying attention to such riveting topics).

Even the Writing Center consultants find punctuation rules a little fuzzy. We recently spent a considerable amount of time discussing when it was appropriate to use single quotation marks (“scare quotes”) rather than double quotation marks. There’s also an ongoing tension between those who love the Oxford/serial comma (the comma that comes before the last item in a list of three or more) and those who consider it superfluous. Some of us have even confessed to intentionally breaking punctuation rules. For example, I frequently place commas in the middle of long sentences where they don’t technically belong, just because it feels right.

It’s true that Writing Center consultants likely discuss punctuation more frequently and with more enthusiasm than the average student (we even have a handout titled “Dash-Dash-Revolution” that describes the dash as “exciting”). But we still empathize with our clients’ confusion concerning punctuation and realize as G. V. Carey did that punctuation is decided “two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste” (see Nordquist’s article). That’s why we keep stacks of handouts on common punctuation errors, why we sometimes take breaks from higher-order issues of content or organization to give clients some punctuation pointers. It’s why we attempt to be flexible about how clients’ use punctuation in their writing, and why we try not to judge if a students’ only experience using semicolons, parenthesis, and hyphens is typing emoticons.

Since the only way to avoid punctuating sentences is to never pause or stop a sentence, writers will always have to deal with the confusing or undecided aspects of proper punctuation. What are some of the “tricks” you were taught to remember correct punctuation?  Which were helpful, and which weren’t? What resources do you use now to help clients in session?