Style Matters #20: Let’s just place the commas where they should be


I often decry the misuse and slow disappearance of the comma (,) because it is probably the most handy punctuation device in a writer’s artillery.

This tiny mark plays a host of roles, mostly parsing sentences so the reader can make quick sense of what the writer wanted them to comprehend. Yet writers frequently put them in where they shouldn’t be and leave them out where they should.

The comma is a versatile little critter, because it can:

  • show small breaks in the continuity of a sentence
  • separate simple items in a list

My cherished child comes first, last, always.
One, two, three and four times they came back for more.
May, Lee, Shane and I went to the movies together.

NB: news copy does not take a comma before and at the end of a list unless it is critical to clarity

Songs on the album were mostly written by Hal David, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Burt Bacharach.

  • separate items in a list of adjectives or adverbs within a sentence

My big, black, scary dog was quivering in the corner.

  • separate different parts of a sentence (e.g., clauses in a complex sentence)
  • close full quotations (direct speech) but not partial quotes
  • separate introductory or extra words in a sentence

Commas can also be used to:

  • conjoin two separate but related or conditional sentences with the use of a co-ordinating conjunction (a word such as so, and, but, for, or, nor, yet)

We have a test next week, so please remember to bring your Style book and a dictionary.

But commas must not be used willy nilly as a joining device (to link sentences)

The Brisbane Lions played hard, they deserved to win. (incorrect)
The Brisbane Lions played hard. They deserved to win. (correct)
The Brisbane Lions played hard and deserved to win. (correct)

  • separate task lists

Last night I wrote an abstract for an assignment, prepared for my tutorial and edited some articles.

If the items in a list, however, are more complex, or the list is preceded by a colon (:), then separate the listed items with a semi-colon (;), using and to separate the last two items in the list.

  • indicate sentence inversions

For further information, please contact Trina McLellan.

  • partition off a subordinate (aka non-restrictive) clause (tip: these clauses can be read over)

The tax returns, which were on her desk, were audited.

NB: a subordinate (non-restrictive) clause that starts with the word which is always encapsulated by a comma pair. Subordinate (non-restrictive) clauses are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
An example of a restrictive clause is

The tax returns that were on her desk were audited.

This indicates that only the tax returns that were on the desk received audits, no other tax returns did.

  • introduce a short quoted sentence

She said, “I will be back.”

NB: If the quote is long, or more than a sentence, then use a colon

  • But, perhaps, the comma’s most important role can be to clarify a person’s status

The Prime Minister’s wife Jenny will accompany him on the visit.

This implies he has more than one wife and the one called Jenny will go with him.

The Prime Minister’s wife, Jenny, will accompany him.

This says he will be taking his wife, who is named Jenny.

Special note

Particular care needs to be taken with comma placement around names. Pay close attention to comma usage in the following examples:

Griggs Ltd chief executive officer Maryanne Moses said her company would weather the difficult economic conditions for small businesses. (No commas.)

The chief executive officer of Griggs Ltd, Maryanne Moses, said her company would weather the difficult economic conditions for small businesses. (2)

Griggs Ltd’s chief executive officer, Maryanne Moses, said her company would weather the difficult economic conditions for small businesses. (2)

In the first example, the company and position title merely act as adjectives describing the person whose words were reported, in much the same way as a shorter personal title such as Ms or Mrs would. Therefore no commas are required.

In the second and third examples the definite article (the) is either used overtly or implied, making it possible for you to read over the name with commas around it and the sentences still make sense.

It is never correct to use one comma with a name.

Griggs Ltd’s chief executive officer Maryanne Moses, said her company would weather the difficult economic conditions for small businesses. (incorrect)

This would interrupt the flow of the sentence for the reader.

A good way to memorise the rule for using commas with names is to think:

When it comes to names or titles, I may need to use two commas or none, but never just one.

And, finally, remember, when handling direct (quoted) speech, the comma and the full point usually go inside the final quotation mark.

“I will arrive tomorrow,” he said. “Then I will leave the next day.”

NB: but, when handling partial quotes, the direct speech passage does not form a complete sentence, so the comma sits outside the quoted passage.

The delays, he said, had left him “fed up”, so he had given up.

So there you have it. A quick primer on comma use. Hope it helps next time you’re trying to punctuate a sentence correctly.


Learn even more about the advanced use of commas at the excellent Purdue OWL.


If you like what you’ve read here, you can see reporting4work’s similar posts at Style Matters

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