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‘Royal Pains’ of the Grammar World: Commas

Look, I understand that commas are one of the trickiest punctuation marks. However, the fact that many people these days forget – or even worse, ignore – the basic comma rules makes me want to die a little.

Yes, I know, we could nitpick for hours about how language is an ever-changing, amorphous being. But here’s the gist: Content with correct grammar makes you look smart and competent; content without correct grammar sends a warning sign to your clients.

So to beef up your blog, e-mail blasts, or website content, I’ve compiled a few comma rules and when to use them. If any time you’re confused about a term I use, check out Jana’s post about parts of speech.

Don't be a skeptic, I can help!

Within a series: When you have a list of three or more items, place a comma after every item that occurs before “and.”

Examples: HankMed consists of Hank, Evan, and Divya. The company treats rich, famous, and average people.

Pro Tip: The Oxford comma has been disappearing from publications because newspapers don’t want to spend the extra ink on it. Just because they are taking the easy way out doesn’t mean you should. The extra comma lets the eyes focus on each item.

Around degrees and titles: Degrees like “PhD” and titles like “CEO” should be separated from the person’s name with commas.

Examples: The founders of HankMed were Hank Lawson, MD, and Evan R. Lawson, CFO. Before becoming Evan R. Lawson, CFO, Evan was Evan R. Lawson, CPA.

Pro Tip: Titles and degrees are well-earned, so give them the distinction they deserve by setting them apart with commas. However, generational suffixes like “Jr.,” “Sr.,” or roman numerals do not get commas.

Connecting two independent clauses: If you have two clauses that could stand on their own but sound better together, connect them with a comma and coordinating conjunction.

Useful comma

Gee, look at all the things I can do for you!

Examples: Diyva was engaged to marry a rich man, but she prefers being Hank’s physician assistant. She’s amazing at her job, and HankMed is lucky to have her.

Pro Tip: The coordinating conjunctions (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) are your best friends.

Before or surrounding the name of the person addressed: When you are directing a statement at a particular person, split them from the rest of the sentence.

Examples: “Wow, Evan, these imprinted promotional products look great!”

“Thanks, Divya! Hank, didn’t they do a great job?”

“Sure. Great job ordering them, brother.”

Pro Tip: Names count, but so do titles. Separate titles like “sir” or “doctor” with commas as well.

Parenthetical elements: If you have information that further explains your subject, set it off with commas.

Examples: The EKG machine, which was in the back of Divya’s van, was essential to Hank’s diagnosis. The patient, a famous actress, was complaining about chest pains.

Pro Tip: In the second example, “a famous actress” is called an appositive. Sometimes appositives are so closely related to the subject that with a little placement change, they can forgo a comma. Turn “The doctor, Hank, was worried.” into “Dr. Hank was worried.”

Contrasting phrases: When linking together two phrases that contradict each other, insert a comma to distinguish the difference.

Examples: Hank was annoyed when Evan brought him antibiotics, not painkillers. He stressed leaving the doctoring to him, not his brother.

Pro Tip: Don’t toss in a comma for things that agree. “Hank needed antibiotics and painkillers” is correct.

I can totally be your best friend!

Multiple coordinate adjectives: When you have many adjectives, break up the list with commas.

Examples: Hank noticed that his patient had a red, swollen bruise. Divya pulled antiseptic out of Hank’s old, worn doctor’s bag.

Pro Tip: If you can slip an “and” or “but” between the adjectives, or you can reverse the order, a comma belongs there. “Little old lady” would not have commas because you wouldn’t say “little and old lady.”

Statements and questions: When you make a statement and then want to ask a simple question about said statement, use a comma to separate them.

Examples: HankMed is the best concierge medicine service, don’t you think? Royal Pains doesn’t come back until the winter, right?

Pro Tip: Careful that you don’t link to questions that could stand on their own. “Divya is the best, when do you think she’ll find her true love?” is not correct.

The one general rule when it comes to commas is: if not having it will potentially confuse your reader, you probably need it. This, like all grammar rules, is not an exact science, but it will serve you well in times of desperate need.

IMAGE CREDIT TO LAN BUI AND VANQUISHED.


Mandy Kilinskis

Mandy is proud to be a part of QLP’s content team. A self-professed nerd, her interests include video games, sitcoms, superhero movies, iPods and iPhones but never Macs, and shockingly, writing. Her claims to fame are: owning over forty pairs of Chuck Taylor All Stars, offering spot-on coffee advice, and knowing an unbelievable amount of Disney Princess facts. You can connect with Mandy on

Comments

  1. JPorretto

    I, never learned, how, to use comm,as correctly,!!!

    Thank,s Mandy!

  2. Joseph Giorgi

    I’ve always been confused about the current disregard for the Oxford Comma. Some authors use it, and some don’t. Personally, I’m a big fan. In fact, I think sentences that call for it look ridiculous without it. But I’ve also been told that it’s essentially “optional.” Regardless of whether it’s optional or not, I’ll never stop using it. It’s not like I’m gonna be saving any “ink” anyway. Digital ink never runs dry. :)

    Awesome post, Mandy!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      My point exactly, Joe. While the Oxford comma is becoming more and “optional,” that doesn’t mean that it’s becoming less necessary. (That sounds redundant, but I think you get what I mean.) I’ll use that comma forever! What’s wrong with keeping your lists crystal clear?

  3. Rachel

    Love this! The points about multiple coordinate adjectives are particularly helpful for me. And you’re so right: content, no matter how interesting, becomes very sloppy-looking when riddled with grammatical errors. Thanks for all the tips! :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I hear you, Rachel. Multiple coordinate adjectives give me issues, too. I’m glad that you found some tips that can help!

  4. Bret Bonnet

    I hate the English language.

    I think we should all revert to the grunting system. Who doesn’t know the difference between an:

    “Errr”

    and a

    “Grrr”

    I mean come on people!

  5. Eric

    Optional grammar? “Optional?!?” Well, can’t say I would’ve complained if there was a question on the ACT with the choice of, say, “D.) Optional.” +5 for representing proper grammar.

  6. Jill Tooley

    While I can’t offer much commentary on Royal Pains (I’m assuming it’s worth watching?), your grammar pointers are spot-on. The comma is one of the simplest punctuation marks out there, but it seems to cause problems for many people. I usually see people omitting commas before conjunctions when they should be inserting them.

    This is the example I’m most familiar with: “Woman without her man is nothing.” By adding a simple colon and comma, you get this: “Woman: without her, man is nothing.” Or, with just two commas, you get this: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.” Quite a big difference! Punctuation can alter the entire sentence. Many don’t realize that…

    Anyway, great post. :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Clearly, I am a fan of the show. It’s kind of like, medical drama meets MacGyver. I don’t even enjoy medical shows, but I find this one to be absolutely riveting. And they’ve even used promotional products on their show!

      You’re completely right about how important punctuation is! The instances of miscommunication that have occurred because of a lack of punctuation (or just wrong punctuation) are more numerous than anyone would like to admit.

  7. amy

    Awesome explanations and tips here Mandy! I typically follow the rule that if you pause while reading the sentence you should put a comma there. However, I think your advice is a little bit more sound ;) Thanks!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      No problem, Amy! You’re absolutely right: The comma-per-pause rule helps in most cases, but not all!

  8. Amanda

    This post held my interest to the very end. Over the years, I think we all forget some of these basic rules–thanks for the refresher! =)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Hooray! Writing about grammar can be boring and uninspiring, so I’m glad that I was able to keep you interested! You’re so right, Amanda. As we continue on in education or in our careers, things like grammar slip to the wayside. Refreshers are, well, refreshing! :)

  9. Jana Quinn

    This blog post brings a proud tear to my eye. I have become more of a descriptivist in my old age (language being defined by current usage not established through tradition/authority), but I still think clarity should reign supreme. Excellent work, grasshopper.

  10. LK

    I’m saving this for future reference! I always want to use more commas than are probably necessary.

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  12. Prime Aque

    Great and worth reading! Back in school days, comma has given emphasis, yet, sometimes, laziness tempts someone not to care for it that much. It’s sad, and thanks for this reminder! Even before that I did not yet addicted to blogging, am a person that is so particular with different types of punctuation marks, and how to use each of them :)

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Punctuation is definitely a fickle beast. And it can also change depending on what style book you follow. But for the sake of clarity, commas are extremely important. You need the visual breaks in sentences.

      Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment, Prime! :)

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  14. Casmania

    “Lets eat Grandma!”

    “Let’s eat, Grandma!”

    Commas are deadly.

  15. Bob C.

    I am a member of a small writers’ group. One guy is writing is first novel, and is “comma-tose,” He has commas where they shouldn’t be, commas missing where they should be, and when 3 of us tried to correct his mistakes, he digs in his heels and said (here’s his excuse verbatim): “To me, punctuation is about pauses and rhythm, not grammar. No pause, no comma. No problem.”

    I told him if he ever gets his book published, I would like to record all the people holding his book to their ears, listening to all his pauses and rhythms.

    I sent him your blog. Hopefully, it will shake some much-need sense into his head.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Bah… I’m facepalming over here for you, Bob. I understand that language is fluid and can be shaped to specific needs, but there’s a limit. I hope that the blog post helps!

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