Commas: tips & tricks

Commas can sometimes be a little confusing and using them incorrectly can cause havoc in your writing. We cover how to use them correctly.

Commas: tips & tricks

It’s hard to know where to start with commas. Some writers say they’re overused, cluttering up prose and ruining an otherwise lucid text. Others say the comma is the barrier between sense and befuddlement when it comes to writing; without them, we might be in a constant state of confusion. In this blog, we’ll walk you through some comma rules that will help you write with clarity.

But, first, a primer on the comma. Below is a quick outline on where the comma came from and what it actually does – useful if you want to gain a holistic understanding of grammar, or you find yourself at a very strange pub quiz.

  1. Brief history of commas
  2. Avoid comma splice
  3. Don’t use commas to make your sentences too long
  4. Commas and dates

Brief History for Pub Trivia Enthusiasts

The first iteration of the comma likely emerged from 3rd Century B.C. Byzantine, when it was added to texts that were written to be spoken aloud to groups. The idea was that the location of a comma (at this stage, a dot) indicated a point in the text when the reader should pause before continuing. In a way, this conception of it has survived in the millennia since; at some point in your education, I’m sure someone told you “a comma should go wherever you would take a breath.” It attained widespread use thanks in part to St. Augustine, who implored printers of the Bible to add commas, lest the text be read incorrectly because of a lack of punctuation. The comma’s development was mostly completed in the 15th Century, when the Italian printer Aldo Manuzio began to use it in a fashion we would recognise.

OK, so you’re sorted if punctuation comes up at trivia next week – but what does a comma actually do? We can learn a bit about that from the word itself. It comes from the Greek kόmma or koptein, meaning “to cut off.” Essentially, it means to finish a clause, and this is often what a comma does. In reality, the comma has far too many uses to summarise in a blog that is a length you would actually want to read. Generally, however, it is used for two purposes; firstly, to separate the different parts of a sentence known as clauses – which we looked at in our last blog. And, secondly, to separate items in lists. See the example below;

If I had to choose my favourite color scheme, I think it would be red, white, and blue.

Now that we know where the comma came from and what it does, below are some tips and tricks on how to use that fickle piece of punctuation as best you can.

Avoid the comma splice

A comma splice is not, as it sounds, a delicious grammar-related ice-cream treat. It is, in fact, a common punctuation error. It comes about when a comma is used unnecessarily to link two independent clauses. See the example below.

I went for a walk, it’s a nice day.

A prime example of a comma splice. There is an easy fix though; simply keep the comma and add one of the FANBOYS – the coordinating conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

I went for a walk, for it’s a nice day.

Not only is that a jauntily old-fashioned sentence, it’s also grammatically correct.

Don’t use commas to make your sentences too long

By now, you’re probably thinking about how great commas are. And it’s true. Without them, a large swathe of English sentences would make no sense. But be wary of overusing commas in favour of full stops (periods) to make your sentences longer. Despite what some of us may think, long sentences are not an exhibition of intelligence – especially if they don’t make any sense. Let’s say, for example, we have to send a business email in which we need to reschedule an appointment:

I think it would be good to catch up and discuss working together, but I’ve got a meeting at lunchtime then I’ve got to make a call in the afternoon, however, I am available tomorrow.

A hugely long sentence, but one that likely looks familiar to busy people constantly networking (who have forgotten how quick and easy Outwrite is to use). We don’t actually need to change much of the wording to make this a lot more palatable. We only need to change the punctuation (i.e. remove a few commas).

I think it would be good to catch up and discuss working together. Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting at lunchtime, then I’ve got to make a call in the afternoon. However, I am available tomorrow.

This reads better and emphasises critical ideas you want the respondent to pick up on. By making the first clause its own sentence, you highlight your excitement at working with the person. Similarly, by turning the last clause into a sentence you remedy that horrible misuse of ‘however’ and provide a clear understanding of when you are available. All by replacing some commas with full stops.

Commas and dates

This is where things can get a bit fiddly, but a mastery of commas and dates can certainly enhance the formality of your writing. The rules can change a bit depending on whether you’re writing in British or American English. If you’re using the former, the day of the month comes first, the month second, the year third. No comma required.

Tuesday, 21 May 1996.

When using the American system, the month goes first, the day second, then a comma before the year.

Tuesday, May 21, 1996.

While this is a very small part of your writing, it contributes to a polished product.

So, there you have it. A quick guide to commas. Hopefully this has helped refine your skills a little bit. Of course, if you want to make sure your commas are always in the right places, use Outwrite.