To Comma or Not to Comma


Vision 69


To Comma or Not to Comma


Dr. Bob Rich

Copyright © 2012, Dr. Bob Rich, All Rights Reserved



A number of times recently, people on writers' lists have expressed puzzlement about where to use a comma.

While there are different styles and conventions, to me the issue is simple enough. I use a comma where it will make it easier for the reader to get my message. As with everything else, I don't use it unless it is required for this purpose.

Punctuation marks in general are signposts. Their job is to inform the reader of how the text is to be segmented. Specifically, a comma is the main tool for cutting a sentence into meaningful parts.

A comma does this in the following ways:

  • It separates items in a simple list (a list consisting of items that don't contain commas). "I pocketed my bunch of keys, wallet and handkerchief." The comma before the final "and" is optional. Some style guides insist on it, others forbid it. I put it in if the final item is quite long, as in "I pocketed my bunch of keys, wallet, and a somewhat crumpled but clean handkerchief."

When one or more items in the list have a comma, they should be separated by a semicolon: "They stood in front of me: the blond boy, his nose still bleeding; the little fellow with a smirk on his face; the girl, her hands formed into fists; and the furious mother."

  • Often, a sentence has a bit inserted between other elements. Such interpolations have a comma before and after, unless they are at the beginning or end of the sentence. It may be a "parenthetical phrase." Examples are "By the way, I am ready now;" "As they walked down the street, hand in hand, she looked up at the sky."

It may be an address. "John, please pick that up," or "Listen, Sue, I'm speaking to you," or "That boy there, I want you to sit still."

Words like "however," "therefore" and the like need a comma after them. Some people insist on having a comma before words like "too," as in "We went to the Zoo and he came, too." This kind of comma is optional. Since it adds nothing, and one doesn't have a pause when saying it aloud, I always leave such commas off.

  • Clauses should be separated by commas, for example, "Whenever we go to a restaurant, he always overeats." Beyond this, there are certain mechanical places such as within dates, before a quote within a sentence and when writing long numbers.

One place that never needs a comma is between the subject and verb of a sentence. "Diamonds, rubies, and other precious stones, twinkled about their throats, wrists and fingers." There should be no comma before "twinkled." This is true regardless of the sentence’s length. Many people, including experienced writers, make this mistake because the string of words goes on and on, and they feel the need to take a breath. The solution of course is to shorten and simplify the sentence.

To summarize again: if having the comma improves readability, put it in. Otherwise, leave it out.