Punctuation: Simple Comma Sense (The Rule)
Simple Comma Sense
At times, I wonder why Simple Comma Sense is so uncommon. The rule governing the use of commas is actually very straightforward and easily understood. While I do not profess to be a college professor, and I do not possess a doctorate in fancy English bits and bobs, I am a creature of habit; I research endlessly. I urge everyone else to adopt this practice in his or her own live.
Now I am going to make a few points because I am a stickler about the comma, Oxford or otherwise. In fact, I don’t even believe in this strange term, ‘the Oxford Comma’. There is only one type of comma, and it has one simple rule: to separate items or elements.
Well, that was easy enough to explain, wasn’t it? That is really all there is to the rule that controls the use of commas. There are some variations to the rule, but that depends on how it is used. The rule, itself, never changes. The most basic way in which a comma is used is to create a list. It might sound odd to think of a compound sentence as a list of items, but that is what it truly is.
When you connect two independent sentences, they are joined in various ways. You can use a colon or semi-colon depending on the sentence, or with a conjunction and punctuation.
When you break down a compound sentence into separate parts, you will recognise where the comma must be used. I stress the word ‘must’ because that is the purpose of a comma.
I am crazy, but I am not stupid.
I am crazy, but I am not stupid, although people think I am nuts.
A comma must appear before a proper conjunction if it’s being used as a such. The topic of conjunctions a discussion for another day. People get confused because in some sentences the comma is not required. This is because the sentence cannot be split into separate, yet grammatically correct, parts. This last sentence was somewhat clumsy, but it was a deliberate attempt to illustrate the next purpose of a comma.
If you add some additional information, like this irrelevant bit, into a sentence, you must indicate it via punctuation. One can use commas, which are helpful, or — and I am very fond of this approach — by use of an em dash. Decide on which type is most applicable, but you must insert the proper punctuation.
Since commas only serve to create a list of items, or to indicate an insertion of supplemental commentary, it follows that they are used to denote a list of elements or individual pieces. Every single item must be separated by a comma. Having an ‘and’ before the last component does not negate the last comma, unless the two parts surrounding the ‘and’ are one item. Examples are often the best way to explain things.
In the above example, you have invited two parties:
- Lady Gaga; [and]
- Diana Ross and the Supremes. [Full stop here]
The first is a solo singer, and the second was a musical group before they broke up to go their separate ways. Diana Ross went on to pursue a solo career and so did The Supremes.
In the last example, you have invited three parties:
- Lady Gaga; [and]
- Diana Ross; [and]
- The Supremes. [Full stop here]
When we consider that there are three different elements involved, we can also change the order of the entities without changing the meaning. In the previous example, it is not possible.
While on my favourite subject of music, think of Joan Jet and the Black Hearts, or Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers … do you see my point? Of course, this doesn’t just apply to rock stars. This is a consistent rule as per the first few paragraphs of this article.
Every time you denote a list, you must separate all the items. It’s never optional. Without a comma, the two items are expressed as a singular compound. This is termed a comma-separated list. Actually, it is derived from point form lists, which are often incorrectly written these days.
- Carrots; [and]
- Apples; [and]
- Bananas. [Full stop here]
An apple-banana fruit does not exist. Has someone managed to create a hybrid? Is so, then you may leave out the comma.
There is no valid argument for leaving out the comma unless it is ‘Diana Ross and the Supremes’. The comma is clear about the list. It is the omission that creates the confusion. Let me use a clumsy example to highlight the Comma Sense rule.
- Blue coloured flowers; [and]
- Pink coloured flowers; [and]
- Yellow and Purple coloured flowers. [Full stop here]
In the flower example, we only have three types of flowers. The last species is both yellow and purple in colouring. This means that you don’t automatically have a comma before the ‘and’. Forget about the words, and think mathematically. Item one, item two, and item three.
Occasionally, and this falls under creative licence, we use the comma to indicate a pronounced pause in fiction. In the truest sense of punctuation, it might be incorrect, but it helps authors phrase their thoughts. This is not to say you should just insert commas everywhere, rather that you use them sparingly, pragmatically applying Comma Sense when not following the rule.
In my experience, I’ve found that most sentences that have too many commas are often in need of a good edit. From some of the appalling advice I see online, the solution is not to learn to write in a more pleasing manner, but to simply do away with commas altogether. You need a comma every time the rule applies. If you, like many others, and even myself, at times, are using too many commas, then change the sentence.
Once you get your head around that you need to make lists, the rule is very simple to comprehend, and apply. This is the rule. Commas are not optional extras. While you can never use too many of them correctly, you might be simply writing clumsy sentences. Purple Prose often leads to excessive use of commas.
If you want to be taken seriously, then learn to write properly. You don’t have to break the rules to be a good writer. You need to master the art of writing to be a brilliant author. Anyone can break the rules, but it takes an accomplished writer to produce polished work that doesn’t need to make silly mistakes to be ‘kewl’. It’s all just Comma Sense!
You might want to read this post on Quora about conjunctions and commas.