11 Jul 2013

How to Use Commas

In a List:

You must use a comma in a list - any place you could put the word 'and'. It can connect single words, or phrases. For example:


The child was small and round and vile-tempered.
>
The child was small and, round and vile-tempered.

This was caused by a combination of: too many sweets and an over-indulgent mother and too little sleep the night before.
>
This was caused by a combination of: too many sweets and, an over-indulgent mother and too little sleep the night before.

Commas can be used instead of 'and' to connect: nouns, adjectives verbs and adverbs. In a list, the word 'and' normally separates the last two items.

List of Objects (Nouns):
On his nose, he balanced a banana, an apple, an orange and six strawberries.
more interesting:
On his nose, he balanced a banana, an apple, an orange, six strawberries and ended in a heap of fruit salad.

List of Qualities (Adjectives):
She was beautiful, young and blonde.
more interesting:
She was beautiful, young and dead.

List of Actions (Verbs):
He crouched, leapt and hurdled the wall.
more interesting:
He crouched, leapt and hurdled the boy with no trouble at all.

List of How (Adverbs):
He put on his trousers carefully, quickly and went to work.
more interesting:
He put on his trousers carefully, quickly and back to front.

Make your sentences more interesting by using the humble comma to combine actions or descriptions in unusual ways.

Comma Crime:
Do not attempt to stitch together a bunch of sentences. Your mis-shappen frankenstein's monster will collapse under its own hideous weight. You cannot use a comma to join the unending list of things that are happening in your head:
Nooooooo:
I want cake, I really want cake, I wonder if that's cake on top of the cupboard, is it chocolate cake, damn I could really go for some chocolate cake right now.
>
Yes:
I want cake. I really want cake. I wonder if that's cake on top of the cupboard. Is it chocolate cake? Damn I could really go for some chocolate cake right now.

Find out more about why I put full stops in all these places.


Use a Comma When Two Parts of the Sentence Depend on Each Other (use the comma as a hook to hang the second idea on):
For example:
Whenever my great aunt comes to visit, I hide behind the sofa.
Notice that 'Whenever my great aunt comes to visit...' isn't a proper sentence on its own. You can also rearrange this sentence: 'I hide behind the sofa whenever my great aunt comes to visit.' In this case you don't need a comma. The same applies for the examples below:

If she become suspicious, she will rap loudly on the window.

Because she can't see very well, she hasn't noticed
 me yet.

The sentence below doesn't need a comma.
My greatest fear [no comma] is that one day she will bring binoculars.
You can't rearrange the sentence above. It won't make sense, like so:
 > 'is that one day she will bring binoculars my greatest fear' (no one would attempt this - except perhaps Yoda)

Get more examples like this.

Use two commas when dropping non-essential information into a sentence. This works a bit like brackets.
The dog, which was covered in fleas, ran through the crowd.
The man, who was wearing a very strange pair of trousers, suddenly decided to go home.
The cheese, which was still in its wrapper, sat on the side.
In other words, if you slice the non-essential bit out, the sentence will still make sense.

Use a comma after an adverb start:
Unfortunately, I dislike fish intensely.
As a result, we cannot go fishing.
In addition, I shall never own a goldfish.

Commas in Action:
Use commas to link descriptions more smoothly and neatly:

This room is pale smoked mauve, like tired eyelids, matte with a map and posters and proper art, framed behind glass, gleaming. Gold dots dance with the late afternoon light, turning the plum sofa pink, crumpled with sitting.

Non-comma Version:This room is pale smoked mauve. The walls are matte, like tired eyelids, with a map and posters and proper art. The pictures are framed behind glass. They are gleaming. Gold dots dance with the late afternoon light. The light is turning the plum sofa pink. The sofa is crumpled with sitting.