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The secret trick to mastering commas

Master the pesky comma

Did you take the Simple Writing comma quiz? If not, you might want to give it a whirl before reading on.

As of today, the average score for 245 readers who tried their luck—or exercised their knowledge—is 60%.

Since the quiz has 20 questions, a score of 60% means 12 correct and 8 incorrect.

And that means a lot of people know their commas. Congrats!

But it also means others just aren’t sure. And what do clumsy commas look like in a blog post or any other kind of writing?

Not good, people. Not good.

Here’s the secret trick to mastering most commas

Surprise, surprise. You don’t have to just memorize a bunch of comma rules. What you do need to understand, though, is sentence structure. And that’s something teachers and professors rarely explain.

And no, it’s not about memorizing compound, complex, or compound-complex sentences either. I was never able to get that straight and couldn’t explain it now if my life depended on it.

What you need to know is the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause.

Let’s tackle independent clauses first.

An independent clause is a complete sentence that can stand on its own.

Forget what you probably learned in school about “complete thoughts” and whatever other vague stuff that requires guesswork.

A sentence is “complete” when it contains both a subject and a verb that create meaning together. In addition, even if you take away all other words in the sentence, the subject and verb make sense (even if it’s not something you’d normally say or write).

These examples are all independent clauses (complete sentences) even though they’re pretty short and simple.

The dog ran. (Dog is the subject, and ran is the verb.)

Billy threw the ball. (Billy is the subject, and threw is the verb.)

He charged down the street. (He is the subject, and charged is the verb.)

Subjects are always a noun, a pronoun, or a word or phrase functioning as a noun. And they can be simple (one noun/pronoun) or compound (two or more nouns/pronouns)

Remember, a noun is a person, place, thing, or idea. And a pronoun replaces a noun: I, you, he, she, it, we, they, that, this, and so on. Running, to read and to write, or search engine optimization can also be subjects.

Verbs are words that show action (action verbs). They can be simple or compound, and they can also show a state of being and rename or identify the subject (linking verbs).

Note: When discussing the main subjects and verbs in a sentence, the verb is often called the predicate. I’m sticking with verb here just to keep things simple.

Take a look at these examples:

“Think positive” messages help service employees stay cheerful. (Messages is the simple subject and help is the simple verb.)

Maria and Troy love to go shopping. (Maria and Troy is the compound subject and love is the simple verb.)

Light in August is a well-known novel by William Faulkner. (Light in August is the simple subject, and is is the linking verb.)

Crickets, cicadas, and toads seemed to cover the yard. (Crickets, cicadas, and toads is the subject, and seemed is the linking verb.)

“To be or not to be” is Hamlet’s question. (To be or not to be is the simple subject, and is is the linking verb.)

Alligators killed and ate the ducks. (Alligators is the subject, and killed and ate is the compound verb).

In the sentences above, ran, threw, charged, help, love, killed, and ate are action verbs. Seemed and is, on the other hand, are linking verbs.

Now let’s move on to dependent clauses.

A dependent (or subordinate) clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb that might look like a complete sentence, but it’s not. It can’t stand alone as a sentence because it’s used with a subordinating conjunction.

That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? A conjunction is a word or phrase that connects other words, phrases, and sentences. Subordinating conjunctions are words or phrases like although, as long as, because, even though, rather than, since, and when. And like the name suggests, subordinating conjunctions make what follows subordinate or dependent.

Check out the following examples:

Even though Billy threw the ball. (Even though what?)

Since Maria and Troy love to go shopping. (Since what?)

When the dog ran. (What did he do when he ran?)

As long as “to be or not to be” is Hamlet’s question. (Huh?)

Do you see how each sentence has a subject and a verb? They look like complete sentences, but they’re not because they’re missing information. Plus, they just don’t sound right, do they?

The problem is the subordinating conjunction that’s placed before the otherwise complete sentence (an independent clause). A word or phrase like that subordinates the entire sentence/clause and makes it dependent. Dependent on what? An independent clause.

An independent clause that starts with a subordinating conjunction is no longer a complete sentence—it needs to be attached to another independent clause that is a complete sentence. Then you not only have a proper sentence, you’ve also supplied the missing information.

Take a look at these:

The dog didn’t run even though Billy threw the ball.

Since Maria and Troy love to go shopping, they won’t mind picking up those gifts.

When the dog ran, Billy threw the ball.

I got an A on the test as long as “to be or not to be” is Hamlet’s question.

Now you’ve got sentences that make sense. Remember: A subordinating conjunction makes what might otherwise be an independent clause (a complete sentence) dependent upon a complete sentence that truly can stand alone. The complete sentence adds missing information.

One more thing you need to know

A coordinating conjunction is a word that joins words, phrases, and clauses. And, or, nor, for, so, yet, and but are the seven coordinating conjunctions. FANBOYS, YAFNOBS, or FONYBAS are mneumonic devices to help you remember them.

Now let’s use the secret trick with your commas

Three common situations in which commas should or should not be used:

1. Use a comma between two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, nor, for, so, yet, and but.

Billy threw the ball, and the dog ran.
Maria and Troy love to go shopping, but they don’t like malls.
I got three questions wrong on the test, so my grade was lower than what I hoped for.

On each side of the comma is an independent clause. Either one could stand alone, but they work well together because the information they provide is closely related. Plus, they’re equal in rank, and they’re joined with a coordinating conjunction that doesn’t change their independent status or add a lot of extra meaning.

A way to remember this comma situation is to think of two independent clauses as adults or roommates: they need their space. A room of their own. Give them a door—a comma.

2. Don’t use a comma when an independent clause is joined to a dependent clause—the clue is a subordinating conjunction such as because.

The dog ran because Billy threw the ball.
They like to go shopping although they don’t like malls.
My grade was lower than what I hoped for even though I studied hard.

In these examples, the information on both sides of the subordinating conjunction is important, but one side (the dependent clause) is incomplete even though it gives additional information about the other side.

Think of this situation as an adult and a child: don’t separate them. The child adds meaning to the adult, but he or she is dependent and not able to stand alone.

3. Use a comma after an introductory clause (which is always a dependent clause).

After Billy threw the ball, the dog ran.
Although I had studied hard, my grade was lower than what I hoped for.
Even though they don’t like malls, Maria and Troy love to go shopping.

Introductory clauses are dependent clauses used to introduce and add meaning to independent clauses. If you compare the third set of sentences with the second set, you can see how you can switch them around.

Commas are used in many other situations.

This is by no means a complete list of every situation in which commas are used in sentences or in other situations, such as lists.

But if you understand subjects and verbs, independent and dependent clauses, and coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, you’ll be able to master comma usage. And not just commas—you’ll also get an upper hand on semi-colons and even colons.

Don’t forget to take the comma quiz! If you already took it, go ahead and retake it; that’s not a problem. If you didn’t do so well the first time around, I’m sure you’ll do better this time (and bring that average score up!)

If you want more in-depth information on commas plus semi-colons and colons, be sure to grab a copy of The Simple Writing Writer’s Guide. It’s free, and you’ll get more on the “secret trick” as well as additional punctuation situations. Plus a load of great tips and tricks for proofreading your own writing.

Questions or comments? Don’t hold back! I’m here to help.

Photo credit: CollegeDegrees360 / Foter / CC BY-SA

11 comments… add one
  • Hi Leah, wonder if you help me with a “tricky” comma issue. I come across similar sentence structure often, and I am not sure whether commas should be added before and after the word “and”.

    Here is a sample sentence: Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes and given the insecurity in the current political climate, the approach means look out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole.

    Should I add the commas so that it looks like this: Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes, and, given the insecurity in the current political climate, the approach means look out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole.

    Thanks, Leah, hope you can sort this out for me.

    Reply
    • Hi there,

      Technically, you’re fine. But for readability, I would drop the comma after “fortunes.” That usually works for similar sentences. But if they get too long, best bet is to reword in the context of the whole paragraph.

      But the sentence is also a bit awkward: “Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes, and … the approach means look out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole.” Examine the sentence without the parenthetical phrase (insecurity etc.) and reword the second independent clause. Of course, it might work better in context. This applies to any sentence like this–the second part might not match so well with the first because of all the stuff in between (something that has to be checked carefully).

      Hope that helps! Did you read this post? http://simplewriting.org/test-your-comma-skills/

      Reply
  • Hi Leah, thanks a lot for your prompt response. Based on your suggestion, the sentence should read: Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes and, given the insecurity in the current political climate, the approach means looking out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole. Is that right, Leah?

    What do you think if I rewrite it like this: Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes. Given the insecurity in the current political climate, the approach means looking out for themselves rather than the opposition as a whole.

    Or how would you rewrite it, please?

    I have another sentence of a similar structure: I had an abortion two years ago and since then I’ve been pregnant again and had a boy who is now one.
    Based on what you said in my first posting, the sentence should read: I had an abortion two years ago and, since then, I’ve been pregnant again and had a boy who is now one. Am I right, Leah?

    What do you think if I use a period, like this: I had an abortion two years ago. Since then, I’ve been pregnant again and had a boy who is now one. Which one is better? Or is there a better way to right them?

    Eagerly looking forward to your reply, Leah.

    Reply
    • You’re welcome!

      Here’s how I would write this one:

      Each individual party wants to assure its fortunes. Given the insecurity in the current political climate, that means looking out for themselves rather than worrying about the opposition. (Or something that’s simple and direct.)

      Either version (the corrections) of your last sentence works. It depends on the context and the rhythm established in the paragraph.

      Good luck! And you sound like a writer. If I were you, I’d subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style online. http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html It’s an incredibly useful resource, and it’s partly why I know this stuff. Years of looking things up! 🙂

      Reply
      • Hi Leah, many thanks for all your responses! Much appreciated. I look forward to your proposed post that covers more comma situations.

        Merry Christmas, Leah, and may you and your family have a wonderful 2016.

        Reply
  • Hi Leah, could you help sort out this sentence, please?

    The kids ran around excitedly and their chatter reflecting the holiday mood.

    I think it should be like this: The kids ran around excitedly, and their chatter reflecting the holiday mood. Alternatively, it can be like this: The kids ran around excitedly; their chatter reflecting the holiday mood. Am I right, Leah?

    Reply
    • Good questions. In your first correction, “reflecting” should be “reflected” unless you remove “and.” That’s because the two actions are taking place at the same time, and you want to use the same verb tense.

      Correct: The kids ran around excitedly, and their chatter reflected the holiday mood. (That’s two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.)
      Correct: The kids ran around excitedly, their chatter reflecting the holiday mood.(That’s a non-essential participial phrase.) That needs a comma, not a semi-colon.
      Correct: The kids ran around excitedly; their chatter reflected the holiday mood. (See semi-colon usage in The Simple Writing Writer’s Guide)

      Hope that helps! 🙂 I’ll have to write a post covering more comma situations.

      Reply
  • Hi Leah, have done both quizzes. Stumbled on “ice cream” in the first one, and “rain drops” in the second. The result is 95% for both.

    Reply
  • Hello Leah, came across a sentence that I think is wrong. Here goes: Comma rules can be confusing, not necessarily because they’re difficult, but because no one can seem to agree on what they are.

    I think this sentence does not need commas. What is your take on this, Leah?

    Reply
    • That’s a case of using commas to set off contrasting ideas. If you do a search with the sentence you mentioned, you’ll get a bunch of articles that mention it. You could also try searching with [commas contrasting expressions “not because” “but because”]. Normally, a comma isn’t used with a subordinating conjunction like “because” (which is probably what you’re thinking), but in this case it’s fine. Hope that helps!

      Reply

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