The Comma Sutra: How to use a comma

There’s nothing like a comma to tie you up in grammatical knots.  Sure, this cute, curvy symbol looks innocent enough, but behind its oh-so-deceptively simple style, this little baby has the power to take your sentence and give it a WHOLE new meaning.  If you don’t think commas are important, try forgetting one when you tell someone “I’m sorry, I love you.”

Here are just a few of the ways in which commas come in really useful when you’re writing.

Commas separate elements in a series 

“Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, and Croatia are all members of the EU”. Note the one after Bulgaria. Known as an Oxford comma, its use often ignites serious debate among grammar pedants. But there’s no denying it makes things crystal clear.

Consider this famous example. The sentence, “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” makes it quite clear at least four people were invited to this dubious sounding shindig. On the other hand, the sentence, “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin” indicates these two famous guys had second jobs they presumably kept pretty quiet about.

Using commas gives you an optional parenthetical element

This is just a neat way of saying that you could ditch whatever you’ve said in between the commas and your sentence would still stand on its own two feet. “They could, had they been so inclined, have launched another rocket before lunch” can also read just as well as “They could have launched another rocket before lunch.”

Commas used with an introductory word or phrase

Commas can help set the tone of what you’re trying to say – “Naturally, I would prefer it if you didn’t interrupt”  – or can help make a definitive statement – “At exactly midnight, she heard a bloodcurdling scream.”

And let’s not forget how useful commas are when it comes to interpreting numbers

Your new employment contract could say you’ll be paid $1,000,000 or $1000000. Which one did you have to look at twice?

Commas also separate co-ordinated independent clauses

The ones which are fine on their own and can be a sentence in themselves, but which also can be linked with another. Such as, “I like Vegemite, but my brother thinks it’s the food of the Devil.”

No doubt about it, commas are pretty nifty. Such a small mark on the page has the power to give clarity, to add  a little something, to give rhythm to our speech, and make us pause where we ought to. Best of all, when you see someone exhorting “Let’s cut and paste kids!” you know the humble comma has the awesome power to save lives.

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