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The neat little comma indicates nothing more confusing than a pause in a sentence. Despite its modest nature, however, it is woefully misused. This is not necessary if you remember a few simple principles.

 

If you need the words, you don’t need the commas, and vice versa.

If you pause, list or speak, you do.

 

 

 

 

If you are writing a list of items or attributes, you need to separate them with commas.

John Smith lived in a modern, colourful, tidy house.

His favourite breakfast was bacon, eggs, beans and toast.

 

The so-called ‘Oxford comma’ or ‘serial comma’ comes under this heading. Oxford scholars, and others of like mind, include an additional comma before the final ‘and’ in a list. You will also find it in American English.

His favourite breakfast was bacon, eggs, beans, and toast.

It is my opinion, and that of most modern writers, that this is not necessary. However, it can be useful to avoid confusion if there are groups within the list. In this case, the ‘toast and marmalade’ count as a single item.

His favourite breakfast was bacon, eggs, beans, and toast and marmalade.

 

The proper use of a comma in lists avoids major problems of miscommunication.

John’s hobbies were cooking his family his dog and his garden.

 

 

 

 

In direct speech, when you are writing exactly what a person said, you need a comma before the quotation mark, whether the speech follows or precedes the text.

As John sat down at the breakfast table, he said to his wife, ‘What a lovely morning.’

‘It certainly is,’ she responded.

 

The rule is exactly the same if the direct speech is interrupted: the commas go before the punctuation mark.

‘It rained all day yesterday,’ continued John, ‘and I thought it would be

raining this morning.’

 

 

 

 

A subordinate clause (and my all-time favourite cracker joke) is a part of a sentence that supports the main clause. The subordinate clause adds something to the sentence.

If the clause is additional to, but not essential to, the meaning of the sentence, then it is separated by a comma or commas. Here, the subordinate clause is at the beginning or the end of a sentence and is followed or preceded by a comma.

Having eaten his breakfast, John set off for work.

He set off at a brisk pace, as he was a little late.

 

In the next example, the subordinate clause is in the middle and is surrounded by commas.

John was half way to work, making good time, when he realised

he had forgotten his umbrella.

 

In all the above examples, you could put brackets around the clause (instead of commas) and take it out without creating nonsense. The clause adds to the information but is not essential.

John set off for work. He set off at a brisk pace. John was half way to work

when he realised he had forgotten his umbrella.

 

On the other hand, if the clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence, then it does not need commas.

He decided it was not important. He checked his pockets for his ticket.

He knew that travellers who have no ticket cannot board the train.

 

Here the subordinate clause – ‘who have no ticket’ – cannot be removed without leaving something that makes no sense.

He knew that travellers cannot board the train.

 

 

 

 

If you include extra asides in a sentence that, again, are not vital, then they are separated by a comma, if they are at the beginning or end of a sentence, or two commas, if they are in the middle. The ‘brackets’ test also applies here.

Meanwhile, his wife, Mary, put on her coat and left the house. She saw

John’s umbrella by the door as she left which, naturally enough,

reminded her to take her own umbrella.

 

‘However’ takes a comma if it falls into this category.

However, she didn’t really think it would rain. It might shower, however, a bit later on.

If it means ‘whichever way’, then it is essential and does not take a comma.

However it turned out, she was prepared.

 

 

So your reminder is:

If you need the words, you don’t need the commas, and vice versa.

If you pause, list or speak, you do.

 

 

Commas

The shopping-list comma

The conversational comma

Santa's little helpers

Aside from that