Writing Pet Peeves: Comma Confusion

The presence of rules suggests one correct way to punctuate a given sentence. At least, that’s how I was taught. Pity the fool who disagreed with my high school grammar teacher about the correct placement of a comma, semicolon, or colon. Rather than memorizing the complicated rules she tried to teach us, I learned to trust my gut. If in doubt, I go with the pause rule and add a comma when a pause is desired.

By graduate school, aside from the occasional missing or extra comma in the reference section, I’d more or less mastered comma usage. Editors for dozens of academic publications of one kind or another agreed, rarely adding or removing commas to anything I’ve written in the last 25 years.

Faith in my punctuation instincts took a big hit after I joined the Athens Writers Workshop. Initially, ignoring the young whippersnappers who dared to suggest I needed to move a comma, was easy. MFA my ass. In time, their gentle rebukes for inappropriate comma usage in my stories sunk in.


I tried to change, honest. Subscribing to The New Yorker was my undoing. Seriously, when it comes to commas, the editors of this magazine, and, I’m not kidding, either, stick commas all over the damn place.

Edits for my novels always include comma additions and deletions. Sometimes I have an option to accept or reject the added or deleted comma, and sometimes I don’t. Changes without the option are apparently not negotiable. I’m not going to argue about comma placement with a professional editor. You want it, you got it.

But I’m totally confused about commas. My confidence is shaken. So I finally looked up the rules and got surprisingly little help. Let’s take a look at them, one by one.

1) Use a comma to separate the elements in a series. Simple. He did a, b, and c. However, there’s considerable debate about the comma after the next to last item in the series — also known as the Oxford comma. Some like it, some don’t. I’m a fan.

2) Use a comma AND a conjunction to connect two independent clauses. Sounds easy, until you get to the small print. “We cannot say that the comma will always come before the conjunction and never after…” Why the hell not? Either you’ve got a rule, or you don’t.

3) Use a comma to set off introductory elements. Omitting this comma is acceptable in a really short sentence. Yeah — the one rule that makes sense  is optional.

4) Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements. Okay, here’s where this comma shit gets deep, with more ifs, ands, ors, and buts than you can shake a stick at. I’m talking appositives, vocatives, absolute phrases, and interjections. Oh my. Thank God I have editors.

5) Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives. What the hell is a coordinate adjective, you ask? A string of adjectives to modify the same noun. I like the explanation the link above provides about the comma not being needed if you wouldn’t say “and” between the two adjectives. That’s why it’s little girl and not little, girl.

6) Use a comma to set off quoted elements. When it comes to writing dialogue, punctuation is the least of my worries. Newcomers to our writers group often get confused about which side of the quotation marks to place commas, periods, and the like. I think maybe the rules have changed. Yeah. That’s another problem. They change the damn rules all the time.

7) Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast. Okay. I’m not sure why this is a rule. The examples provided at the link above all seem to fit with either rule #2 or #4 above. Shows how much I know.

8) Use a comma to avoid confusion. Right. Whether or not a comma is needed, and if so, where to put the damn thing is the source of my confusion. This rule is sort of like that “and other duties as assigned” clause in every job description. It means you can put a comma anywhere you want.

9) Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb. That’s right, folks. I’m calling this The New Yorker rule. One comma is NOT okay. Use lots of them.

10) Typographical reasons. If it looks funny with the comma, kill it, and vice versa. I guess.

My advice is to do the best you can. If you’re not sure, the pause rule works about as well as anything else. In the end, whether or not you got it right depends on who you ask.

7 responses to “Writing Pet Peeves: Comma Confusion”

  1. Taking a pause for a comma usually works fine. If you can write how you speak, you have the gist of where that comma should go.

    I follow this rule for quotation marks: if it applies to the complete sentence, the punctuation goes outside the marks. If not, then inside.

    Great post. Fun read.

  2. I worry about commas. They are tricky little beasts, and tend to slide around a lot. I’m with you. That pause rule works reasonably well. (I’m not a professional writer, so I guess I don’t have to worry?) Do not disabuse me of this comforting notion. K?

    • Whether or not a comma is needed and where is too often debatable. I’ve finally learned to do what feels right, knowing the editors will “fix” any problems. Another rule is the sentence should make sense without the phrase between commas. That’s why the comma sometimes goes after the “and” rather than before (when you’d pause). Like I said. It’s all very confusing!

      • My middle school teacher said, “When in doubt, leave it out.” She did pause where I put the comma! 😀 Ah well. Leave it to Strunk n White, I guess. All editors are grand.

  3. Just try being British and having US editors who are applying Chicago Manual of Style. Boy, are there a lot of differences. Not to mention radically different grammar rules for some things. Plus writing in a fairly colloquial, chatty style that just doesn’t sit well with their need to have correct (US) grammar everywhere. After taking a huge hit to my self confidence and beliving I had no idea how to punctuate, I realised what the problem was. I decided I’m going to continue to use commas the way I’m comfortable with and let the editors “correct” them.

    Oh, and blogdramedy’s comment about the quotation marks? Yeah, the editors won’t accept that rule, which is the rule everywhere except in the Chicago Manual of Style. For them, closing punctuation goes within the closing quotation mark, regardless of whether it applies to all or part of the sentence. You can tell I’m still a little bitter about losing that argument. 😉