I think it’s pretty safe to say there’s no punctuation as perplexing as the comma. They’ve generated 23 pages of Internet query in just the past year alone. Rest assured, even seasoned writers find themselves asking an important comma question from time to time.
So, what is a comma?
Comma (noun) (plural commas or commata). Punctuation mark (,) (usually indicating a pause between parts of a sentence or between elements in a list).
Commata? Who knew? Now, just try to tell me you’re not as anxious as I am to use commata in a conversation this week …
Commas separate elements in a series (three or more things), including the last two. Example: “She went through the drive-thru, ordered a burger, and ate it in the parking lot.” (No judging!)
A comma + a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) connects two independent clauses. Example: “She ordered a hamburger without onions, but they messed up her order by adding onions.”
One of the most frequent errors in comma usage is the placement of a comma after a coordinating conjunction. Example: She ordered a hamburger without onions, but, they messed up her order by adding onions.
Commas set off parenthetical elements, as in: “The double cheeseburger, which has two patties and two slices of cheese, contains far too many calories for me to consume in a day.”
The “parenthetical element” is the part of the sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of that sentence (the two patties and slices of cheese). This is the most difficult rule in punctuation because it is sometimes unclear what is “added” or “parenthetical” and what is essential to the meaning of a sentence.
An adverbial clause that begins a sentence is set off with a comma:
“Although I like hamburgers, I know I should eat more salads.”
An adverbial clause that comes later on in the sentence is troublesome, especially a “because clause.” In most sentences a “because clause” is essential to the meaning of the sentence, and it will not be set off with a comma:
“I had to go to the gym today because I ate another hamburger.”
Sometimes the “because clause” must be set off with a comma to avoid misreading:
“I knew the drive-in made a good hamburger, because my brother worked there and told me about the old-fashioned taste.”
Without that comma, the sentence says that the hamburgers are good because my brother worked at the drive-in, versus knowing the drive-in made a good hamburger because my brother told me so.
The Oxford Comma
Now here’s where the comma drama really kicks in …
You may have learned that the comma before the “and” is unnecessary. I, and many of my colleagues, beg to differ.
Here’s a detailed explanimation that may sway you toward the Oxford comma:
Still not convinced? In some situations, if you don’t use this Oxford comma (especially when the list is complex or lengthy), the last two items in the list may glom together – in a hilarious, embarrassing, or just flat-out-wrong fashion.
So, there you have it. The wonderful world of commas. Now that we have reminded ourselves how best to use them, can you imagine a world without them? Apparently some people can.
Don’t fret – we’ll stay proper and polished. Business writing is meant to be just a little bit more formal than what you’d read in a text message. Long live the comma!
If you need help getting started writing content for your brand, (whether that be social media posts, website content, a press release, or an email) let us lend a helping hand… and a pen — we are here to help!