I’ve heard a story about a bestselling author who isn’t confident about using commas. When she sends her manuscripts to her editor, she includes a page typed full of commas with a note, “I know these need to go somewhere, but you can figure out where.”
From my experience as an editor, a lot of writers—whether successful, struggling, aspiring, or amateur—feel the same way. I spend a lot of time removing unnecessary commas and adding needed commas.
The following guidelines regarding commas are the ones I find most commonly abused in work I edit and in publications I read.
- Use a comma and a conjunction (and, but, or …) to join two complete clauses into a compound sentence: We went to the store, and we bought bread.
- Do not use a comma to separate two verbs that are the predicate of a single subject: We went to the store and bought bread, NOT We went to the store, and bought bread.
- Do not insert a comma between the subject and the predicate of a sentence: The lady of the house answered the door, NOT The lady of the house, answered the door.
- Be consistent in the use of the serial (also known as the Oxford) comma. I prefer using the serial comma, both because it is recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style and other style guides I use most often and because it avoids confusion. However, some styles do not use the Oxford comma, and if you are following such a style, do not use it at all (unless it is absolutely necessary to make the meaning clear): She served steak, peas, and macaroni and cheese, NOT She served steak, peas and macaroni and cheese. Since macaroni and cheese is one food, the serial comma goes after peas. Otherwise, the reader might think the peas were part of the macaroni and cheese dish.
- Use a comma to set off introductory elements at the beginning of the sentence: Arriving at the church late for the service, she entered the building quietly.
- Set off parenthetical expressions (added information that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence) with commas: The teacher, who wore a purple dress, wrote the formula on the blackboard.
Using commas correctly in the six instances described above would go a long way toward eliminating comma abuse. For more information about the correct use of commas, visit the Guide to Grammar and Writing.