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A Back As Blue As a Swordfish's

The Definitive Guide to Proper Comma Usage

If we gave Hemingway a dime for every time he used a comma where we all were taught we should use a comma, he could buy only one Cuba Libre with two limes for each of us. Which he has graciously offered to do here at Sloppy Joe’s, as we talk about “probably the most exciting topic in all of punctuation.” I’m quoting Hemingway. He can hardly contain himself.


To talk about commas, I’ve invited some of Hemingway’s writer friends to join us: Orwell, Kerouac, Bronte, and Twain, who sometimes use commas where they should and sometimes don’t use them where they should, and sometimes use semicolons and dashes instead. To start the conversation, Hemingway raises his glass. “I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing, including harpooning sharks and crashing airplanes.” Then he recites by heart the six times that using a comma is appropriate; he knows them all; he just doesn't agree with them all:


1. to set off a prepositional phrase at the beginning of a sentence:


In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway turns a large thumb down on this idea:


For just a moment the fish turned on his side.


So does Kerouac in On the Road:


At the end of the field I unloaded my burden on a scale . . . .


Ditto, Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four:


With that first blow on the elbow the nightmare had started.


Bronte seems so prim and proper, but in Wuthering Heights, she rides with the men:


On the anniversary of her death we never manifested any signs of rejoicing.


2. at the end of a conditional clause (see Tip: “U-Turns at the End”):


Hemingway doesn’t like this one either:


If I were towing him behind there would be no question.


Nor does Kerouac:


When daybreak came we were zooming through New Jersey with the great cloud of Metropolitan NY rising before us in the snowy distance.


Orwell can’t make up his mind; in one sentence he leaves the comma out; in the next sentence he puts it in:


When it grew worse he thought only of the pain itself, and of his desire for food. When it grew better, panic took hold of him.


3. when separating two independent clauses joined by a conjunction:


Hemingway really hates this one. He slams a hamfist on the table. “Give me more ands!”:


His back was as blue as a sword fish’s and his belly was silver and his hide was smooth and handsome.


Again, Kerouac agrees:


Neal was clutching his head in the crowd and it was a mad crowd.


But in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain likes to use a comma to separate his independent clauses joined by a conjunction:


He was barefooted, and the snake bit him right on the heel.


Orwell uses a comma twice to separate three independent clauses in one sentence:


The dull pain in his body never went away, but sometimes it grew better and sometimes worse, and his thoughts expanded or contracted accordingly.


Bronte and Twain also like to mix it up, sometimes using commas, sometimes using semicolons. I’ll let you guess which is which:


. . . but just as I suspicioned, he warn’t there; so the old man he got a letter out of the office, and we waited awhile longer, but Sid didn’t come; so the old man said, come along, let Sid foot it home, or canoe it.


A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace.


4. before the final and in a series (see Tip: “The Answer Is, ‘Yes, always!’”):


Hemingway says, “The Oxford what?” But Orwell and Bronte lecture him on its necessity:



It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting, and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference.




. . . she sprang forward, took both his hands, and led him to Linton.


5. prior to a participle introducing a dependent clause:


Hemingway likes this one:


. . . he took good hold of it with his right hand, flexing his hand on it, as he watched the sharks come.


Kerouac does not:


Out we jumped in the warm mad night hearing a wild tenorman bawling horn across the way . . . .


But the rest side with Hemingway. “This is good,” he says.




We begun to come to trees with Spanish moss on them, hanging down from the limbs like long, gray beards.




O’Brien was standing at his side, looking down at him intently. At the other side of him stood a man in a white coat, holding a hypodermic syringe.




I put on my bonnet and sallied out, thinking nothing more of the matter.


6. for parenthetical asides:


Hemingway really likes this one. “I use it frequently,” he says, “to control my reader’s pace.”:


With his prayers said, and feeling much better, but suffering exactly as much, and perhaps a little more, he leaned against the wood of the bow and began, mechanically, to work the fingers of his left hand.


Twain likes to set off his asides with commas, too, but he also uses em dashes:


And when it comes to beauty—and goodness, too—she lays over them all.


Orwell does the same, sometimes a comma, sometimes an em dash:


There was a long range of crimes—espionage, sabotage, and the like—to which everyone had to confess as a matter of course.


Kerouac surrounds his asides with commas, then uses a triple-hyphen version of the em dash. “I do that to make my reader consider each statement”:


All over the world, in the jungles of Mexico, in backstreets of Shanghai, in New York cocktail bars, husbands are getting drunk while the women stay home with the babies of the everdarkening future. If these men stop the machine and come home---and get on their knees---and ask for forgiveness---and the women bless them---peace will suddenly descend on the earth with a great silence like the inherent silence of the Apocalypse.


Hemingway's jaw unhinges. But he knows it’s okay to use or not use commas when our ear for syntax says, Forget the rules: leave it out, or put one here, or use something else for the right effect. Use the six, as Hemingway recited them, to avoid confusing our reader. When we know the rules, and we understand the reason for them, then we can break them. What do you think, Hem? He narrows his eyes. “I think that it is hot and that it is good that it is hot. And that is as it should be and that is good. Wanna see my cats?”

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About Gary Kinder

Gary Kinder

WordRake founder Gary Kinder has taught over 1,000 writing programs for AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, and government agencies. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author. As a writing expert and coach, Gary was inspired to create WordRake when he noticed a pattern in writing errors that he thought he could address with technology.

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