To Comma or Not to Comma… Ah, Kill the Comma!

Somewhere across the oceans from America to Britain, a few commas get lost in the waters. British English grammar and American English grammar really are two different animals. In England, they use far fewer commas than we do over here in the states, and generally, they use less punctuation overall. The reason I bring this up is because what I’m about to write in this blog pertains to American writers writing for an American audience. Comma rules for British audiences (or countries where British language rules are used) are slightly different.

I know many of you old-school grammarians were taught to put a comma wherever you would put a pause in the reading if someone were speaking the words.

WRONG!

When writing poetry and lyrical prose, commas do sometimes represent emotional or emotive pauses in the writing, but for fiction and and non-fiction writing, this is not true. There are rules for when to use the comma and when not to use a comma, and they have little or nothing to do with pauses in speaking.

I can often tell the age of a person by reading their writing. Anyone over 40 is going to use too many commas if they haven’t kept up with the changing style guides. I know I use far fewer commas now than I used to when I first started writing, but then, as an editor, I keep up with the style guide changes from year to year too.

One example of the difference between British English and American English where the comma is concerned has to do with introductory prepositional phrases. For example, well, for example is a good example of a prepositional phrase ‘for example’, and introductory simply means that it comes at the beginning of the sentence.

When a prepositional phrase starts off a sentence, a comma should set off that introductory prepositional phrase.

Example:

For me, I prefer red.

With the whisk, beat the eggs thoroughly.

On the stairs, you will find a rug.

Now, one of the reasons for this is what I call the ‘lift out’ phrases. Prepositional phrases aren’t really necessary phrases. While they provide clarification, additional information, a prepositional phrase is rarely needed to make a complete sentence.

Let’s try removing the prepositional phrases from the examples:

I prefer red.

Beat the eggs thoroughly.

You will find a rug.

Now, as you can see, these are all complete sentences (you understood in the second one as the subject). The prepositional phrase lifted out definitely gives additional information, and perhaps it’s information that the listener/reader needs to understand, but to make a complete sentence, the phrase is unnecessary.

In fact, commas are used to set off any ‘unnecessary’ phrases. That is, any phrase that could be lifted out of a sentence and the sentence would still be complete.

Example:

There was a time, when I was a child, I could jump from a tree.

See how ‘when I was a child’ is set off in commas? That’s because it could be lifted out of the sentence and still have a complete sentence:

There was a time I could jump from a tree.

The phrase set off in the commas provide additional information, clarification, but it is not necessary to make a complete sentence.

A very common comma error I see is people who don’t set off any introductory phrase with a comma. I saw this on an article today that used this sentence:

“First let me tell you…”

Can you tell where the comma belongs? If you take the word ‘first’ out of there, ‘let me tell you…” is a complete sentence. The ‘unnecessary’ word ‘first’ can be removed, and therefore, it should be set off with a comma.

Now, the reason I put the word ‘unnecessary’ in quotes is because I don’t want you guys to think that by unnecessary, I mean it should be left out. These filler words ad clarity and character to our writing. When you’re over word count for a submission to a publication, these ‘unnecessary’ words are the very first things you should remove, and then adverbs come after that. It’s not that these words don’t add value or meaning to the sentences; they do, or at least, they can.

I’m simply stating that these phrases and words aren’t required to make the sentence a grammatically correct complete sentence. There are instances where, while the ‘unnecessary’ word or phrase can be removed to make a complete sentence, the phrase or words are absolutely necessary for clarity.

Please don’t mistake my use of ‘unnecessary’ to make a complete sentence to mean the words are useless. Oftentimes, they are not!

Now, I’m not saying this is the ONLY reason commas are used. We’ll talk more in a future blog about other uses for commas, such as lists/listing items, and others.

For this blog though, take a look through something you’ve written recently and ask yourself, “Can that phrase be removed from the sentence and still have a complete sentence?”

If the answer is, “Yes!” then you need to set that phrase off with commas.

Ah, but there’s an exception to this rule – adverbs! Adverbs, typically your LY ending words that describe a verb, modifies HOW a verb is done (runs – quickly, eats – hungrily, etc). Adverbs are not necessary to make a complete sentence, but it would be a rare instance where setting one off in commas is required.

For example:

He ate hungrily.

Does not need to read:

He ate, hungrily.

So, have I completely confused the comma issue?

Just for fun, using this blog post or using a writing of your own, find all the places where a comma set off a phrase, and remove that phrase and rewrite it without the lifted out phrase. You’ll see the writing still make sense without the phrases set off in commas. It might read a bit jerkier than with the commas, but it will still make sense and relay the intent of the writing.

Questions?

Love and stuff,
Michy