Many inexperienced writers (and some experienced ones as well) seem to suffer from one of two extreme relationships with commas. Either they want to use them like sprinkles on cupcakes, extravagantly but with no particular pattern, or they were scared by a comma at a very young age and avoid them at all costs.
That’s not to say commas aren’t tricksey little bits of punctuation I mean, look at them, sneaky little backward Cs, crouching just below the line of text.
The problem with commas is that usage has evolved and even the major stylebooks disagree about some comma usage. I have listened to (and tried not to participate) in rather intense disagreements about comma placement.
So what’s a writer to do?
Option 1: If you want, get a stylebook and keep the comma section open. The Chicago Manual of Style is the most frequently used style guide among professional and academic publishers (and the online version is easy to use). It’s got a whopping fourteen pages devoted to commas. For some reason the Gregg Reference Manual ends up out there quite a bit. Gregg’s (not technically correct, but how most people I know refer to it) evolved from the same folks who brought you shorthand textbooks, so secretaries used it and so did their bosses. It is easy to use because they spiral bind it, making it much easier to look at on the desk.
Option 2: Hire a proofreader. If you’re going to do this, wait until you’ve revised, revised, and then revised some more, and maybe hire someone for line-by-line editing (not everyone who does line by line–or one of the other names used for the process of looking at the content, structure and development of a piece of writing–will also proofread–look for mechanical errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar, etc.). Then get a proofreader. If you rewrite (as you should–everyone has to–if they don’t, they’re the literary equivalent of Mozart, a liar, or writing worse than they should), new errors creep in. The most common ones I see in my own writing are not-quite-completely deleted sections, so some odd little word is hanging out there with nothing attached to it.
Option 3: This option is most suitable for fiction writers; nonfiction writers can’t get away with breaking as many rules without potentially damaging their credibility. Learn these few (almost) iron-clad rules about commas and then be consistent about how you use the rest of them.
- Commas always go inside the ending quotation mark (if a comma is needed.) Example: “Joe,” she said, smelling her armpit, “do I have BO?”
- If the part of the sentence on either side of an “and,” “or,” “but,” or “yet” could be a sentence by itself if you took out the word in the preceding list, you need to put a comma after the word “and,” “or,” “but,” or “yet.” Example: She did have BO, yet Joe was afraid of what might happen if he said yes.
- Commas are friendly, and they often travel in pairs. If you have a descriptive word or phrase that is set off by a comma, then you probably need one at the end of the same word or phrase. State names, for example, are one of the most common type of short, descriptive word that only has one comma. (Notice how “for example” in the last sentence had a pair of commas.):
Example: She drove from Boerne, Texas, to Des Moines, Iowa, through weather warm and dry to cold and wet. OR My sunglasses, polarized extra-strength prescription glasses, hide from me all over the house.
- Commas also like to join in greeting someone (I told you they were friendly). Any time you use a name or nickname directly toward the person who it names, you need a comma. This is referred to as “direct address.” Example: “Hi, George!” she said, waving at him energetically.
Those are the most common easy-to-figure-out comma errors I find. Aside from that, the general rule is that you use them where there is a slight pause (not terribly useful; some people want to pause just because they ran out of breath) or to prevent confusion for the reader (also not terribly useful; the writer isn’t confused and doesn’t always realize s/he lost the reader).