• kirsten Trammell

School of Grammar: The Rules Of A Comma

We sat in plastic chairs and scribbled on paper breaking down sentences — it was painful.

Pencil in hand, I wanted to create fun stories and not worry about what word was an adverb or a past-participle. The energy built up with each new idea that flooded in was only to be replaced with another grammar exercise. Perhaps you remember grammar class as much as I do and hopefully more fondly.

Let’s simply say, my grammar wasn’t the best after elementary school. But now, as a working writer, I have come to appreciate the importance of correctly structured sentences and proper grammar usage.

There is one specific grammar focus that I have been, and still am working through, is comma usage.

Here are 7 rules that I have learned and find extremely helpful to reference in any writing:

1. Separate dates and cities.

This is a very simple one. Use a comma to separate date and year. The same goes for cities states and countries.

Example: July 16, 1989

Example: San Diego, California or London, England

2. Introductory elements.

Place a comma after, or before, an introductory element. Think of it as a pause in personal conversation after someone shares a greeting in direct speech.

Example: Hi, how are you?

3. Lists.

When you are providing a laundry list of items you need to separate them with a comma.

Example: The fridge was full of brunch staples, strawberries, yogurt, orange juice and champagne.

Now, if you want to get extra grammar fancy, you use the Oxford comma. This may or may not be required depending on the style of writing you abide by. When you have a list of three or more terms, an Oxford comma is placed just prior to the final item.

Example: Their Eurotrip took them to Spain, Greece, Croatia, and Ibiza.

4. Separate quotes.

When I first started writing, this one caught me by surprise. I kept thinking, “Why would I end a quote statement with a comma?” But it’s a rule, and rules are meant to be brok — followed, okay fine, they are meant to be followed!

Example: “I will grab us a bottle of wine,” I said and walked inside of the catamaran towards the bar.

5. Additional or unnecessary information.

When you add additional context to content that might not be required place it in between commas. I often think, if you can remove this content and the sentence still makes perfect sense, it isn’t required and belongs with a comma.

Example: One guy, Billy, wore pink and white striped board shorts with a blue tank top, looked like a total fraternity guy.

6. Dependent clauses.

This is where the grammar situation starts to pick up a notch.

Terms like “modified adverb” and “subordinate conjunction” start to enter the conversation. When this happens all I can recall is that fun School House Rock song lyric “…conjunction junction what’s your function.”

I will attempt to explain that a dependent clause is a combination of words that provides additional context to the sentence but cannot function alone as a sentence.

They depend on the rest of the sentence for help — get it? Sometimes grammar has puns and jokes.

Throw in a comma when you include dependent clauses in a sentence.

Example: Since no one else submitted an application, the job is yours.

Example: While I was asleep, the dog ate an entire bucket of ice cream.

7. Conjunctions.

Now the grammar party is getting really tricky. Unlike dependent clauses, there are independent clauses. And your guess is correct, they don’t need anybody for support. These clauses can and do, stand alone.

But, when you place two of them in a sentence together, they will be accompanied by a conjunction. In case you don’t know what these are here is a list: but, so, or, nor, and, for, yet

Place a comma with the conjunction, please.

Example: Sunrises are beautiful, but no one wants to wake up that early to see them.

Example: He was the most handsome man she had ever seen, yet he stood 5’2’’ tall.

One trick that I find to be incredibly helpful is to read what you write out loud. When one reads out loud you take natural breaks within your speech, and it is in these moments that commas are typically required.

The other trick to try with commas is to not worry about them. When you are pouring out and letting your creative juices flow, don’t focus on the grammar and stop to fix the comma usage.

Save this for the editing phase and really enjoy your writing flow.

These seven rules are a great reference to understand when and where to use a comma.

In this very blog, I have likely still used them incorrectly. But hey, that’s part of the fun in writing.

You get to watch yourself practice, learn, and get better every single day!

If all this grammar has only made things feel more complicated than less...I am always here to help!

This article first appeared on Medium.

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