Three Comma Rules to Rule Them All

 

As a writing professor, I receive a lot of free grammar handbooks. Most of these, enumerate the rules of comma usage to a degree that even I find daunting. Most list at least eight rules. Several list over ten. One contains twenty-four rules for proper comma usage.

Today, I will set the record straight for the weary student. In my opinion, one needs only three rules to rule [almost] all commas.

Rule One: Lists

It is no secret that commas separate items in a list.

I eat raw oysters, blanched squid, and seared salmon.

The only challenge comes from that final comma, known to experts as the Oxford comma and made famous by Vampire Weekend’s song by that name.  The song begins, “who gives a fuck about the Oxford comma?” The answer is: I do. And although it is not required, I believe that omitting the Oxford comma shows a lack of sophistication and possibly a tendency toward slovenliness.

 

Rule Two: Extra Stuff

If your sentence contains phrases that could be removed without altering the essential meaning of the sentence or damaging its grammatical structure, those phrases should be offset by commas.

Although arguably a sociopath, my brother is a very likable fellow.

My brother, despite being a sociopath, is a very likable fellow.

The controversy here comes from the essence of “essential meaning.” When we English professors argue about comma usage, it is usually in cases such as these where one might deem a phrase auxiliary in one sentence and essential in another. If challenged on commas such as these, simply sigh and say, “It’s stylistic.”

 

Rule Three: Before a Conjunction Before an Independent Clause

Finally, we arrive at a point where some understanding of grammatical vocabulary is necessary.

A conjunction is one of these words: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so, remembered often by the acronym FANBOYS. Remember the Conjunction Junction?

An independent clause could stand alone as its own sentence.

Independent: I am a shark.

Dependent: Because I am a shark.

Independent: I chase you down.

Dependent: Viciously chasing you down.

Put these pieces of information together and you have the rule. A comma precedes a conjunction that introduces an independent clause.

I believe I am a squid, and this causes many problems for me at cocktail parties.

I believe I am a squid and thus have many problems at cocktail parties.

Are there other comma usage rules? Yes. Does 95% of the English speaking population need to know them? Probably not. Learn these three and proceed with confidence.  

***

Karelia is a professor by day, novelist by night.
Visit www.kareliastetzwaters.com

 

 

29 thoughts on “Three Comma Rules to Rule Them All

  1. Is it just me, or is there an erroneous comma in the second sentence? E.g., “Most of these, enumerate the rules of comma usage to a degree that even I find daunting.” Or was it intentional?

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  2. Great rules and a concise little punctuation education, but we disagree about the Oxford comma. I say that omitting it shows forethought and an understanding of options. But I was trained into leaving the Oxford comma out during my college days in J-School, when the overuse of ink mattered.

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    1. What a good question! I haven’t heard the rule about using a comma when the subject changes, but that would make sense. As Susanna pointed out (below) there are cases when one doesn’t really need a comma before an independent clause even though that is technically what the rule instructs.

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  3. I love the Oxford comma. On Twitter, I describe myself as a champion of the Oxford comma. I taught my students to use the Oxford comma. In paralegal school, I saw what can happen if you omit the Oxford comma. I am unsophisticated and slovenly in other parts of my life, but I will never abandon the Oxford comma, and I will fight for its continued use. (This wasn’t written with tongue in cheek. I’m compulsive about that comma.)

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  4. A very useful guide, especially for students and novices. As both a writer and an editor, I’m leery of always and never when it comes to “rules,” especially those dealing with punctuation. There really are times when a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses is too disruptive, or it may shade the meaning in not quite the right way.
    I believe I am a squid and I am.
    I believe I am a squid, and I am.
    I believe I am a squid – and I am.
    Each one is a little different, and each one could work, depending on what the writer intends and how she hears the sentence. When I edit the work of a writer who clearly has a good ear, I’m very careful about messing with commas.

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  5. Thank you for whittling these rules down to the big three!

    I too, am a stickler for the Oxford Comma, and I have to insist when my editor at the music magazine omits mine. I am reminded both of misheard lyrics, “Comma comma comma comma comma chamelon, you come and go.”

    And my favorite image I like to use to illustrate the importance.

    http://goo.gl/ceHl7b

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