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This week: When to use commasEdited by: Vivian
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Four weeks ago we discussed sentences, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences. This week we'll look at comma usage.
When Should We Use Commas?
Commas really are not living entities that reproduce and decide where to live and where not to live. Neither are they snow flakes that land wherever the wind may take them. They are not decorations to be used or not as a person's fancy may decide. Commas actually have a vital and exact use in writing stories, poetry, essays, or articles. Let's visit Comma World and see if we can discover when and where commas should be used.
We should use a comma to separate words in a series, and use a comma before the conjunction, too, unless we're writing a journalistic article. In a newspaper article, no comma is used before the conjunction. In literary writing, such as essays, stories, and poetry, one is.
Error: Wolves are found in Alaska Canada and Minnesota.
Correct: Wolves are found in Alaska, Canada, and Minnesota.
Names directly addressed need to be set off by commas.
Error: Be careful Mary, or you'll fall.
Correct: Be careful, Mary, or you'll fall.
Commas should be used to set off conjunctive adverbs that introduce a clause or sentence. However, internal or final conjunctive adverbs should be set off by commas only when they interrupt the flow of a sentence.
Error: Meanwhile the Everly Brothers introduced country harmonies to rock-and-roll.
Correct: Meanwhile, the Everly Brothers introduced country harmonies to rock-and-roll.
Mild interjections not needing exclamation points will need to be set off by commas. These interjections include words such as yes, no, well, okay, and oh.
Error: Well I don't understand what you mean.
Correct: Well, I don't understand what you mean.
Error: When I saw the hole in the offensive line wow I knew the safety would sack the quarterback.
Correct: When I saw the hole in the offensive line, wow, I knew the safety would sack the quarterback.
Another place commas are used would be between main clauses unless they are extremely short clauses. The comma comes before the conjunction (and, or, nor, but, yet, sometimes for) joining the main clauses in a compound sentence.
Error: Rabbits usually run when sensing danger but sometimes they freeze in place.
Correct: Rabbits usually run when sensing danger, but sometimes they freeze in place.
Equal adjectives should be separated with a comma. One test is to see if the word and could be used between the adjectives. If so, then a comma is needed.
Error: The velvet skirt fell in soft flowing folds.
Correct: The velvet skirt fell in soft, flowing folds. (Test: The velvet skirt fell in long and flowing folds.)
Adjectives that must be in a specific order are not separated by commas.
Error: They have many, clever ways of surviving.
Correct: They have many clever ways of surviving.
A phrase adding nonessential information should be set off by commas.
Error: Wolves in pairs or sometimes in packs hunt animals such as deer and caribou.
Correct: Wolves, in pairs or sometimes in packs, hunt animals such as deer and caribou.
A comma is needed after introductory words.
Error: To be sure smaller animals can make fierce pets.
Correct: To be sure, smaller animals can make fierce pets.
A phrase that is essential to the meaning of sentence should not be set off by commas.
Error: Animals, falling into this category, include rodents and rabbits.
Correct: Animals falling into this category include rodents and rabbits.
A clause which doesn't add essential information in a sentence should be set off by commas. (A clause has a subject and verb that go together.)
Error: Clowns who usually cause people to laugh instill fear in some people.
Correct: Clowns, who usually cause people to laugh, instill fear in some people.
One should not set off essential clauses with commas.
Error: The wolf, that is found in Alaska, is called the gray wolf.
Correct: The wolf that is found in Alaska is called the gray wolf.
Non-essential appositives should be set off by commas. (An appositive is a noun or pronoun - word, phrase, or clause - placed after another noun or pronoun to provide more information or rename the first.)
Error: The gray wolf a wild species of dog is also called the timber wolf.
Correct: The gray wolf, a wild species of dog, is also called the timber wolf.
But an appositive essential to the meaning of the sentence should not be set off by commas.
Error: The writer, Mark Twain, writes about a young man who runs away.
Correct: The writer Mark Twain writes about a young man who runs away.
Sometimes a name can be non-essential, and sometimes it can be essential. If a person has only one brother, then the brother's name would be non-essential. If he has more than one brother, then the brother's name would be essential.
Examples: My brother, Bob, lives in New York. ("I" have only one brother.)
My brother Bob lives in New York. ("I" have two or more brothers.)
Punctuation in poetry is the same as in other types of writing. Commas add to the meaning of poetry and allows the reader to better understand what the poet tries to say.
Therefore, the answer to the original question is one should comma when and where needed grammatically.
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My last newsletter covered sentences, sentence fragments, and run-on sentences. Most of the feedback referred to that subject.
I have already forwarded this article to at least three people, and at least one of them is now subscribing to the newsletter.
It is a great article,well-written, and easy to understand.
Thanks for another great newsletter, and also for featuring my little article
Thank you for the info. Anyone who said writing is not work should try it. Thank you.
Thank you Viv for this refresher course. I can honestly admit that I experience complications with run-on sentences.Thank you again, Tea'
Jay -- Thank you, ANON!
Great newsletter, Viv! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this refresher on sentence anatomy.
Yippee! Commas - aka my enemy. While hitting that one can you try and get me to understand the two things that elude me? When to place commas around Who phrases (... Bill, who is the ...) and when to slip one before a "because"? Does that sound easy? Not so much. I've read those parts from "The Elements of Style" and "The Writer's Bible," yet still don't understand. Good luck! ;)
Hope today's newsletter helped you. Remember, IF the phrase, name, etc. are essential, can't be left out for the sentence to make sense, then no commas.
Steve adding writing to ntbk.
"The Walk of Memories"
Thank you Viv for sharing this grammar material. I am going to save this in my drafts box and refer to it often. Thanks also for the highlighted items which are now among my favorites.
Have a blessed weekend and write on in the WDC!
Great summary of sentence basics. I might suggest one more type: the never-ending sentence (one of my unfortunate specialties This is the one that goes on and on meeting all grammar rules, but the reader gets lost in the multiple thoughts it contains usually because it needs punctuation or broken up.
Also, suggest you offer this to the Newbie News editors as a perfect intro to help.
I'm making this a FAV.
The run-forever sentence is not a grammatical problem. It is a writing problem.
I enjoyed your grammar on what is a sentence. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it. Thanks.
It has been centuries since I was in school and I still have trouble, but usually I use to many comma's in a sentence. At my age it is hard to teach an old dog, old tricks let alone new tricks.
Thanks for the quick lesson.
I've suggested this idea already to one of the newsletter contributors before I knew this was the place to do it. The idea: Suggestions for dealing with negative reviews outside of WDC... such as on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Kind of like a preemptive pep talk or a 'please step back from the ledge' talk. Such reviews can be hurtful and demoralizing to the extreme. Our end goal is to venture out into the real world, with out the safety net offered by WDC and sometimes it is not so nice out there. I just thought it would be something valuable to talk about. I'd even write the article if anyone wanted me to. I think it's that important. Can you guess, I just received a particularly nasty review on a website selling my story. It doesn't feel good.
There is no easy way to accept negative reviews or comments. Saying that an author must develop a thick skin is soooo true. All of us experience the negative, but we must learn to allow the positive to overshadow that. Easy, no, but necessary.
Unfortunately, our minds don't always operate in correct sentence mode. This can be a serious problem when we try to put our thoughts into words.
However, writing is more than putting our "thoughts" into words. It is putting words into manageable sentences, paragraphs, plots, characterization, and stories or novels.
BIG BAD WOLF Is Thankful!
"Things I've made."
Writing is a challenge. That's why you ask friends for help.
Thanks for the informative newsletter, Vivian. All writers need to review their grammatical skill set from time to time. Sentence fragments are definitely overused, so I was glad to see them highlighted here. A fragment can be highly effective in delivering a dramatic moment of high tension; but used too often, they leave a paragraph sounding disjointed and rough.
Thanks, everyone, for your comments.
See you in four weeks.
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