Writing Tips

Punctuation and Numbers

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Comma Coma

When Do I Need to Use a Comma?

Wake up! We’re talking about commas here; next to colons and semicolons--and maybe apostrophes--the most exciting topic in all of punctuation! Most writers don’t use enough of these things, because the fear of misusing them paralyzes us.

 

Here's why: Grammarians often tell us to place commas wherever our ear tells us to. But just as I will never sing like Melody Gardot or Amos Lee--trust me--some of us have a wooden ear for “syntax,” which is the sound words make on paper. Grammarians can’t tell people, “Just stick a comma in wherever you want your reader to pause,” because many of us can't hear the rhythm of the words; we don't know when to have a reader suspend for a moment right here, and run free again over there. But we all can follow simple rules to guide our readers through our maze of words, whether or not our ears can discern the rhythm.

 

Use a comma:

1. to set off a prepositional phrase (or two) at the beginning of a sentence, especially if it stretches beyond three or four words, or might confuse our reader:

In the majority of these California adoption cases, the state has to show . . . .

2. at the end of a conditional clause (See Tips: Protasis Up the Apodosis) and ("What Position My Condition Is In"):

When a party invokes the privilege, there is a conflict . . . .

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

The comments are disingenuous, and they must be dismissed.

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

SeaPro provides services for logistics, fishing and drilling, and leasing and provisioning vessels.

5. before a participle introducing a dependent clause:

Parc waved to the crowd, shouting that . . . .

6. for parenthetical asides:

. . . which, except for the date, will remain the same.

7. after the year in a date (see The Chicago Manual of Style):

Tickets went on sale May 31, 2016, and in two minutes . . . .

Sometimes, we use commas merely to encourage our reader to read our words the way we want them read. Nothing wrong with that. But mostly, we use them so we do not confuse our reader.

 

You may go back to sleep now.

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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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