That is the question.
To Comma or Not to Comma, That Is the Question
by Vivian Gilbert Zabel
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 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.
1. Writer's Companion copyright 1995 by Printice-Hall, Inc.
2. Literature and Language copyright 2001 by McDugal Littel.
3. Notes and lesson plans by Vivian Zabel