Tutorial: Commas

Hello again, and welcome to the first in a series of grammar/editing tutorials. If you read my previous posts, you know how much I value editing in producing good writing. I hope this series helps you improve your editing skills and enables you to feel more confident with your finished work. As a first step in working towards that goal, I’ll start the series with the punctuation mark that trips up websites, blog posts, and professional articles–the comma! Below, I’ve written a paragraph from a hypothetical story that includes multiple comma errors, which we will discuss.

Marissa peeped around the corner where the new kitten lapped milk from a small dish. Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding. At only five years old Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her; she just wanted to hold him, and touch his soft fur. As Marissa and her mother drove home from the pet shelter earlier that day Marissa had gazed at him through the holes of a cardboard box shifting in her lap on the bumpy ride. Marissa’s mother lounging on the couch spoke softly from behind her saying, “You want to see Buttons?” Marissa looked around at her mother with the pout of innocent longing. Chuckling Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped. She gently grabbed him bringing him to Marissa who grinned eagerly. Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten, he mewed softly. She rubbed his ears, stroked his back and kissed his sweet face.

Comma Splice:

Do not join two stand-alone sentences with a comma. Use a semicolon, connect the clauses with a conjunction, or rewrite the sentences.

Wrong: Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten, he mewed softly.

Right: Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten; he mewed softly.

Lists:

Use commas to separate items in a list, and use one before “and.”

Wrong: She rubbed his ears, stroked his back and kissed his sweet face.

Right: She rubbed his ears, stroked his back, and kissed his sweet face.

Note–the comma before “and” is not always required, especially in journalism.

Adjectives:

Separate two adjectives describing the same noun with a comma.

Wrong: Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Right: Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Conjunctions:

When you connect two clauses that can stand alone using a conjunction (and, but, yet, so), use a comma.

Wrong: Marissa wished to pet the tiny adorable creature but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

Right: Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding.

If one of the phrases connected with a conjunction can’t stand alone, don’t use a comma.

Wrong: She just wanted to hold him, and touch his soft fur.

Right: She just wanted to hold him and touch his soft fur.

Phrases:

If a phrase in a sentence couldn’t stand alone, offset it with commas.

Wrong: At only five years old Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her.

Right: At only five years old, Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her.

Wrong: Chuckling Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped.

Right: Chuckling, Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped.

Relative Pronouns:

If a phrase begins with a relative pronoun (where, who, which, etc.), and the phrase can be omitted from the sentence without changing the meaning of it, offset it with commas. This can get confusing, so here’s a helpful resource.

Wrong: She gently grabbed him bringing him to Marissa who grinned eagerly.

Right: She gently grabbed him, bringing him to Marissa, who grinned eagerly.

Commas serve as the natural pauses we use as we speak or as we read something aloud. Sometimes, this rule is not foolproof; for example, in a long sentence, you might pause before saying “because,” yet you never put a comma before that word. However, for the most part, thinking of commas this way clarifies their purpose and usage.

The rules for commas I’ve laid out here don’t probe the entire subject, but for pragmatic reasons, I’ve provided the most common errors and their simple solutions. I will likely follow this entry in the future with part 2, but these are the basics. Here is the paragraph with every proper adjustment made:

Marissa peeped around the corner where the new kitten lapped milk from a small dish. Marissa wished to pet the tiny, adorable creature, but the girl’s mother had gently warned her not to scare him into hiding. At only five years old, Marissa couldn’t understand why her mother tormented her; she just wanted to hold him and touch his soft fur. As Marissa and her mother drove home from the pet shelter earlier that day, Marissa had gazed at him through the holes of a cardboard box, shifting in her lap on the bumpy ride. Marissa’s mother, lounging on the couch, spoke softly from behind her, saying, “You want to see Buttons?” Marissa looked around at her mother with the pout of innocent longing. Chuckling, Marissa’s mother crept quietly into the room where Buttons still slurped. She gently grabbed him, bringing him to Marissa, who grinned eagerly. Marissa reached out to stroke the kitten; he mewed softly. She rubbed his ears, stroked his back, and kissed his sweet face.

Reading the paragraph with the adjustments illuminates some repetitiveness in sentence structure, as the commas somewhat overload the text. In this light, you might think of perfect writing and editing skills as a pyramid. Building a pyramid requires a strong foundation. When you have a strong foundation of grammatical knowledge–such as understanding where commas should and shouldn’t be–you can edit your work for aesthetics.

Stay tuned for the next one!

 

4 comments

  1. Good explanations! The Oxford comma, however, is not always correct, especially in any kind of writing other than school essays, so you might want to make a note of that in your article.

    Like

  2. I was always a writer… all my life… writing mostly for myself. So it didn’t matter. Even now, I purposefully use a colloquial style mostly. Very informal, and largely because I sense a lot of the grammar rules have changed without consulting me first. When I was in college, I used services such as yours and it helped a lot! In fact, it was through tutorials that I learned to write, and I did a good job. I graduated top of my class.

    I have written 5 complete books and several partials (only one of fiction). I have two that I would like to review with professional editing possibly, but the others are good in colloquial style.

    I have one that is a study of the Gospel of Mark which, I forget the page count but I think it is around 220. I hope to have it peer reviewed theologically/exegetically before I proceed with grammar and syntax etc. But I am glad to find your services because hopefully I can advance to that stage before the end of the year. And since I hope to publish a respectable Bible study, I would want to brush up on my skills and get professional help with it. I will likely self publish it, and thus need your freelance expertise.

    Thank you for this resource. And it is good to know there are standards out there, even if I typically don’t adhere to them. I still appreciate them.

    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, publishing five books is impressive! Writing a bible study is something I’ve considered adding to my unofficial bucket list.

      I would love to help with editing your study on the Gospel of Mark. I edited an essay application for my pastor, who wants to move into a different position in the United Methodist Church, and her editing process was similar to what you are describing; she had a more experienced pastor edit her paper for theological aspects and had me edit for grammar/flow. Since I am a lifelong Christian, I sometimes pushed her into clarifying her theological messages just through the process of normal editing. (“You say this here, but it sounds vague. Were you trying to say ‘blah blah blah,’ or were you more so alluding to ‘blah blah blah?'”)

      Guessing from how interesting your blog posts are, I imagine that a book you wrote would be fun to read! :p Glad you liked the tutorial!

      Like

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