The Basics of the Common Comma – How to Add Clarity to Writing

For years, the comma has been venerated as some mystical, magical creation. Writers routinely employed then fired the standard grammar tool with little understanding of its base uses. A thorough perusal of the Chicago Manual of Style reveals twenty-plus pages that lead mere mortal writers to believe the sneaky comma defies simplistic explanation. Hold on. Help is on the way. Broken down in bite sizes, the comma can be understood and effectively utilized.

According to the Liberty Edition, English Grammar and Composition, “The comma – the most frequently used mark of punctuation – is used mainly to group words that belong together and to separate those that do not.”

Wow! That sounds basic. Could it really be so simple?

Based on the above definition, the comma’s nutshell purpose is to separate or to group. Think of the very dated bra commercial – to lift and separate. It’s an old phrase, but on-point for the comma discussion. If words can be lifted, or removed, from a sentence without upsetting the meaning, taking them out completely, then a comma is used to offset those very words. NOTE the previous sentence.

More common examples of lifting out are:

1) John, the preacher’s son, was always in trouble at school. Being the preacher’s son might be important to John and his father, but the phrase ‘the preacher’s son’ can be removed from this sentence. The casual reader will still understand who’s in hot water with the school.

2) On the night in question, June 18th, 2008, the preacher’s son ran away from home. The specific date might be important in a court of law proceeding, yet it can be completely lifted from this sentence without disturbing the primary meaning. So employment of the commas around the date will add clarity to the writing.

The second fundamental usage for a comma is to separately list items. The Jones ate red beans and rice, spicy blackened grouper, and cream pudding. NOTE the previous sentence. However, there are two issues any writer must consider when forming a list.

First, there is the common journalism thought that the last comma is not needed when separating the list, as the ‘and’ may serve the primary function as the final comma. For example: Sally ate red, yellow and blue jelly beans. As opposed to Sally ate red, yellow, and blue jelly beans. The dilemma is one of clarity. By employing only the ‘and’ to serve as the comma will the reader determine the three separate colors of jelly beans Sally enjoyed? Or does the solitary ‘and’ appear to make the jelly beans a combination color? As all aspiring writers know, getting the words RIGHT for the reader can be tough. If utilizing this comma, the OXFORD comma as it’s known in literary circles, adds clarity to the sentence, then employ a final comma in the list.

Second, words that are commonly thought of together are listed together and separated only by the conjunction ‘and’. The above example is red beans and rice. As red beans and rice pair together the way bread and butter, Bonnie and Clyde, oil and vinegar do, then the combination should be grouped together. Two items that are intimately related in thought processes should be listed together and not separated with a comma.

The comma certainly holds other intrinsic, and oftentimes, complicated purposes for writing. One search on any Internet engine will result in several million hits, many from universities and institutions of higher learning, for comma explanation. The comma is a ubiquitous form of punctuation with multiple and varied uses. However, when writers follow the basic rules concerning ‘lifting and separating’ and ‘listing’ then their work will be on more solid comma ground. cheff

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