Comma Chameleon – A Few Tips on Comma Usage

You wouldn’t think the lowly comma would be such a pain in the ass to deal with, but it’s the bane of many a writer’s existence. The problem stems from one of the very definitions of what a comma is. Notably, we tend to think of commas as representative of a pause in speaking. This is perfectly understandable given common definitions of commas. If you Google up (don’t get me started on verbing nouns)  “what is a comma” the mighty search engine of the gods will spit back this:

a punctuation mark (,) indicating a pause between parts of a sentence. It is also used to separate items in a list and to mark the place of thousands in a large numeral.”

If you get yourself hung up on the pause part it makes perfect sense to use a comma as a place mark for a position where you’d stop and breathe if you were reading the sentence out loud.

commasdonotworkthatway
Trust Morbo, for he knows the ancient and deadly art of Comma Sutra.

The problem is, that’s not what commas are used for. Sure, it’s a pause, but not a speaking kind of pause. Commas are used to break sentences into constituent parts not indicate how you’re supposed to speak them out loud. Everyone has different speech patterns (you can trust me on this, I have an MA in Speech Communication) and if you write to be spoken you’re going to cause yourself problems. Especially, if, you’re, using, commas, for, Shatner-speak. Ellipses (…) would work … better … for that … purpose. Spock.

Let’s start with a few myths about comma usage.

  1. Long sentences need a comma
  2. You should use a comma whenever you pause
  3. Commas are inherently impossible to understand

We’ve already nailed number two (heh, heh); that’s not what commas are intended for. That leaves one and three to deal with. Both are common misconceptions and you need to put them out of your mind. Commas, like all punctuation, have a purpose and that is not to segment long sentences into smaller chunks. If you feel your sentence is too long and absolutely must have a comma then your sentence is probably too long and should become multiple sentences. A comma is not a period.

Now, as for number 3, that’s just your fear speaking. You need to take your fear out back and kick the hell out of it. Commas aren’t rocket surgery. As soon as you wrap your head around number 2 most of your comma problems will disappear.

Here’s a few simple tips on using commas in writing. Note: this is fiction writing, not academic writing. Academic writing has its own set of rules that are guaranteed to ensure the underlying message of a work is completely impenetrable. At least that’s what I was shooting for when I wrote my thesis on argumentation structure and theory in collegiate Parliamentary debate..

Commas are supposed to fulfill any of the following possible uses.

  • Intro bits
  • FANBOYS
  • Lists
  • Describer Lists
  • Interrupters

We’ll take a brief look at each of the above and then explain there are plenty of times when you can do pretty much whatever you want to do.

Intro bits are those sentence fragments that we use to set up a sentence. They don’t technically have to be there, but sometimes they can add some pizzazz to a sentence. I use intro bits pretty frequently in writing; probably far too often. In fact, if you dig around you’ll find a few examples earlier on in this post. Including the sentence you just read.

Intro bits are just that: introductory pieces of information at the beginning of a sentence.

In fact, Sriracha can be used on anything to make it taste better.

In fact is the intro bit, it can be used to change the tone of the sentence or provide additional information.

For most of his early life, Godzilla wondered what it would be like to eat Sriracha eggs.

FANBOYS is an acronym for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are sentence joiners that require a comma in front of them. Think of them as glue that holds a pair of sentences together. They’re kind of like semi-colons, but nowhere near as pretentious.

Godzilla enjoyed his Sriracha eggs, but he did not feel the sauce added anything to his waffles.

“Godzilla enjoyed his Sriracha eggs” is a complete thought, so is “he did not feel the sauce added anything to his waffles”. To make a compound complete thought, we use a fanboy and join the two sentences with a comma. Other types of joiners like however, moreover, and therefore are not fanboys. In fact, they’re really not joiners at all; they’re the kids getting stoned under the bleachers and listening to The Cure. However, moreover, and therefore require either distinct sentences or semi-colons. However, that does not mean you shouldn’t use them. Just remember they’re not FANBOYS and you’ll probably be okay.

Lists are the most common place we tend to use commas. A list could be any grouping of things in a sentence.

Godzilla enjoyed Sriracha, Guatemalan Insanity Peppers, and extra brown sugar in his maple syrup.

Lists are easy. There is one tiny bit of a problem, though. That’s our good buddy the Oxford Comma. The Oxford Comma is that last comma right before the ‘and’ in the above sentence. It’s largely considered stylistic, but I’ve found I tend to use it. Without the Oxford Comma you can wind up with some strange interpretations.

Godzilla enjoyed hanging out with Cthulhu, a pothead and a cynic.

In this case, Cthulhu may be a pothead and a cynic, but the intended phrase was:

Godzilla enjoyed hanging out with Cthulhu, a pothead, and a cynic.

Moreover, when you’re iterating compound lists, the Oxford Comma can make things easier to understand.

Cthulhu offered options like pain and agony, seething and indifference, and wry observations about airline food.

Without the Oxford Comma the sentence structure would look odd.

Cthulhu offered options likes pain and agony, seething and indifference and wry observations about airline food.

Technically the Oxford Comma is optional, but I find it useful. It’s also possible to rewrite the sentence to avoid the need for an Oxford Comma, but I’ll leave that to the heathens.

Describer Lists are generally the easiest place to use. Describer lists contain groups of modifiers.

Godzilla’s rough, scaly skin was a huge turn on for her.

In this case, Godzilla’s skin is both rough and scaly (and a huge turn on). Describer lists work along the same lines as regular lists, but you don’t add the extra “and” before the final element of the list.

Interrupters are specialized sub-sentences that add extended information to a sentence that does not pertain to the actual subject and object of the sentence.

Godzilla, coming from a nuclear apocalypse point-of-view, never could stomach eating his eggs without Sriracha.

You could completely omit “coming from a nuclear apocalypse point-of-view” and the sentence still makes sense, so it’s an interrupter. Wrap that sucker in commas and tell us more about Godzilla’s illicit love affair with Sriracha. Was it hot? Was it spicy? The world demands information on giant lizard love lives!

There is one final place where commas are necessary: separators in dialog. Or dialogue. Whichever you prefer, really. The general rule of using commas in dialog is they replace the end of a spoken statement’s period.

“I think Godzilla is dreamy,” she said.

If the dialog asked a question, you don’t use a comma. Likewise, commas don’t replace exclamation points.

“How can you not be totally turned on by Godzilla?” she asked.

“Take me now, you scaly beast!” she screamed.

Now, like all rules, there are times when your writing will demand you tell the comma gods to go piss up a rope, but those times should be few and far between. Also, be ready for the handful of grammar Nazis out there who will post reviews that your work is essentially unreadable because there was – gasp! – a comma splice somewhere. Nod, smile, and move on with your life. Like most punctuation, commas should fade into the background; if you start noticing them it’s probably time to reevaluate whether all of them need to be there.

Of course, this being English, there are other rules out there (even rules that overwrite the previous rules), but this should get you started on your long path to becoming a grammar nerd.

Here are a couple more places to go for more information on comma usage. Now go forth and segment some sentences!

Writing Center’s Full Handout

Purdue’s Notes On Commas

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8 thoughts on “Comma Chameleon – A Few Tips on Comma Usage

  1. Thank you for this Eric. The whole piece was humorous, educational, and easy to understand. I’ve noted the FANBOYS acronym. You’ve taken a topic most writers fear, and made some sense while creating great examples. 🙂

  2. I think another problem though is if commas are commonly accepted as pauses in narrative fiction, including outside of dialog in deep pov, there’s a reason and demand for that in society.

    Forcing a definition limitation to suit formalists almost always eventually fails.

    Pretty neat post either way 🙂

    1. Even though that’s commonly accepted practice it’s not really what commas are meant for. Of course, writers will decide how they want to use punctuation the rules will probably change over time. The problem is really one of how to effectively represent a pause when one might not really be needed. Overuse of commas can lead to stumbling blocks. I admit it, when I read I automatically put a mental pause in when I see a comma and sometimes the results are less than stellar.

      1. I know what you mean. I try to use my commas more sparingly than I used to. Ultimately only the writer can decide where’s appropriate.

        That’s where the run is. Formalists who insist what things are meant for, and expressive use that mirrors the culture and/or artist.

        I try to read the intent of the author. Sometimes breathless without commas, sometimes haltingly, with moments of pause.

        In a creative narrative, the regular rules just apply the same. That’s not saying either way’ll sell better or less. Just that it’s not wrong either way in fiction.

        Here’s a link to Chuck’s post. Really good also:
        http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2016/02/09/on-sentence-fragments-and-other-stylistic-jibber-jabber/

      2. I think breaking the rules is fine – I’ve certainly done it more times than I care to count – but it has to look intentional. If commas (or anything else, for that matter) are thrown around the manuscript like multi-sided dice at a D&D convention it just looks choppy and incoherent. Done correctly and with full intent, breaking the rules can be an extremely useful thing. But that’s where the art part of writing is. I’m not disagreeing with you by any stretch of the imagination, just that there needs to be obvious intent. Of course, some people will be completely turned off by that and hurl your book across the room in disgust, but those are the same kinds of people who get their knickers in a twist about a lot of things.

      3. Lol! So true 🙂

        Intent is such a fragile thing, yet yes, absolutely needed.

        How it’s received, or perceived, is out of our hands.

        There’s usually enough folk who get the intent to assuage the writing jitters. And enough who don’t one has to, if still intent, hold one’s ground.

        I like the way Chuck put it in his article, art is not math.

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