- Recognize the standard uses of commas
A sure way to irritate educated readers of your work is to give them an overabundance of commas. It is easy but dangerous to take the attitude that Sally once did in a Peanuts comic strip, asking Charlie Brown to correct her essay by showing her “where to sprinkle in the little curvy marks.”
Perhaps the best way to troubleshoot your particular comma problems, especially if they are serious, is to identify and understand the patterns of your errors. We tend to make the same mistakes over and over again; in fact, many writers develop the unfortunate habit of automatically putting commas into slots such as these:
- between the subject and verb of a sentence
- Example: My mother, is a wonderful cook.
- Example: The judge, jury, and audience, were all surprised by this admission.
- in between compound subjects or compound verbs
- Example: My brother, and my sister both hate broccoli with a passion.
- Example: Jesse tripped, and fell into a rosebush.
- before any preposition
- Example: I signaled quietly to Harriet that she had spinach, in her teeth.
- Example: All Juan wanted to do was to have some time outside walking, through the forest.
- before or after any conjunction
- Example: I challenged Mr. Burton to an arm-wrestling match and, he beat me twice.
- Example: Joey tossed the ball, and watched his dog run after it.
- Remember that you DO need a comma before a conjunction that is separating two independent clauses.
- before a list
- Example: My favorite things to eat for breakfast are, bacon, eggs, and cereal.
All of these are places where commas should not go, even if they sound correct in your head or if it’s a place you might pause while speaking aloud. Fixing these comma mistakes will require you to be very intentional about how you write, and to analyze your sentences and figure out what parts of speech fall where in your sentence. It may be time-consuming, but it will get easier as you get more comfortable with it.
Just as it is common for someone to have to look up the same tricky word dozens of times before committing its proper spelling to memory, you may need to reference comma rules multiple times before they feel natural to use. As you improve your comma usage, you will learn to recognize and re-evaluate your sentence patterns, and the rewards are numerous. There is no foolproof or easy way to understand all standard uses of commas, but a great place to start is reminding yourself of the comma’s basic function as a separator and justifying the separation of elements. In the end, you simply must make a habit of reading, writing, and revising with comma correctness in mind.
Complete the practice exercises in the interactive below to ensure you know when to use, and when not to use, a comma.