Writers of all ages struggle with proper comma usage. As a writer myself, I agree that plot, characters, and word choice are infinitely more important than grammar. But if those elements form the layers of a cake, grammar forms the frosting.
Consider for a moment that your manuscript has all those qualities and more, but commas are placed without rhyme or reason. Will publishers be inclined to interpret and decode your submission? If your work is especially compelling, perhaps. But in most cases, no. So crack your knuckles and roll up your sleeves. Let’s review ten useful comma rules using examples from some of my favorite books.
Coordinating conjunctions are the FANBOYS of grammar: FOR, AND, NOR, BUT, OR, YET, and SO. When they connect two complete sentences (independent clauses) into a single sentence, insert a comma before the FANBOYS.
From Holes, by Louis Sachar (p.95): It had been three days since the laundry was done, so even his clean set was dirty and smelly.
1st sentence- It had been three days since the laundry was done.
2nd sentence- Even his clean set was dirty and smelly.
Do not use a comma if one of the popular FANBOYS (except BUT) connects a complete sentence to a sentence fragment. When BUT is placed after a complete sentence, always insert a comma before it.
From A Couple of Boys Have The Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee: Bill brought tide charts and a globe to the dinner table.
1st sentence- Bill brought tide charts.
Sentence fragment- a globe to the dinner table
From The False Prince, by Jennifer A. Nielsen (p. 235): She would speak to take the blame, but reveal the one secret that had protected her ever since coming to Farthingwood.
Sentence fragment- reveal the one secret that had protected her ever since coming to Farthingwood
Use commas between every item in a series or list. The final comma in a series is known as the OXFORD, HARVARD, or SERIAL comma. New grammar rules claim it’s optional, but my vote is to include it for clarity.
From The Magic Pretzel, by Daniel & Jill Pinkwater (p. 49): “Here are pretzels which bear an uncanny resemblance to famous people, Winston Churchill, Attila the Hun, Richard Nixon, Elvis, and the dog in the taco commercials.”
Use comma bookends to offset “interrupters” within a sentence. “Interrupter” is my term for phrases included to provide extra depth or detail. If you remove the phrase and the sentence remains complete, it qualifies for the double comma treatment.
From counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan (p.42): Dell was the fresh hire after Dickie Winkleman, who had served for forty-two years, retired.
Without the interrupter: Dell was the fresh hire after Dickie Winkleman retired.
A comma can substitute for AND between two adjectives. If you wouldn’t use AND, don’t use a comma (ex. “the grizzled old man”).
From Corduroy, by Don Freeman (p.16): And up he crawled onto a large, thick mattress.
If a name or nickname follows an introductory word or phrase, insert a comma before the name. Consider the following: eat grandma or eat, grandma. Commas can spell the difference between life and death!
From Briar Rose, by Jane Yolen (p.48): “Thanks, Daddy. You’re a peach. The peachiest.”
When a conjunctive adverb starts a sentence or follows a semicolon, chase it with a comma. There isn’t an acronym for this plentiful bunch, but here are some examples: FINALLY, MEANWHILE, BESIDES, and ALSO.
From Charmed, by Michelle Kays (p.174): Finally, he drew four careful, straight lines on a map.
What about TOO at the end of a sentence? There’s no hard and fast rule. Want a pause? Add a comma before TOO. Want words to flow without a pause? Skip the comma.
Danger! Danger! Beware of creating run-on sentences or comma splices. These occur when two independent clauses (complete sentences) are connected without any punctuation or by a simple comma. With apologies to Eric Dionne, I will ruin one of her perfectly punctuated sentences to demonstrate both dangers.
From The Total Tragedy of a girl named Hamlet, by Erin Dionne (p. 113): “It must be difficult having your sister here this year, and I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
2nd sentence- I wanted to make sure you’re okay.Remove AND from that sentence. The result is the dreaded comma splice:
“It must be difficult having your sister here this year, I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
Now remove the COMMA. The result is its evil twin, the run-on sentence:“It must be difficult having your sister here this year I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
If you have three or more distinct phrases within a single sentence, use commas to separate them. Refer to Rule #3 for my views on the final comma in a series.
Comma rules for dialogue tags hinge on numerous factors. Is the tag placed before or after dialogue? Does description follow the tag and what does it say? Is the tag placed between two pieces of dialogue? If so, is the “after” dialogue a new sentence or a continuation of the first? Here are some examples to illustrate most of the rules.
From The Real Boy, by Anne Ursu (p.250): “He was going to transform it,” Oscar said, voice quieter than the air.
From Darth Paper Strikes Back, by Tom Angleberger (p. 121): “I’ll make an emergency Yoda,” he said. “This is my new five-fold method.”
From Wonder, by R. J. Palacio (p. 122): “So you have to choose who you want to hang out with,” Savanna said.
From I Funny, by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein (p. 37): “So how was school today, Jamie?” he asks once I’m parked in the kitchen.
From The Giver, by Lois Lowry (p. 96): “Giver,” Jonas asked as he arranged himself on the bed, “how did it happen to you when you were becoming The Receiver?”
Still have questions? Please share your tricky sentences!