Georgia from Durban, South Africa, cries: Help! I am totally defeated by commas. I never know when to use them and spend more time putting them in and taking them out again than I do writing. Is there a simple rule to follow?
Hmm, wouldn’t it be wonderful if uses of the comma could be explained in one simple rule? Unfortunately, that isn’t possible, but maybe the list below will help to make its usage clearer.
- A comma is used to separate items in a list: Mary carried books, pens, files and paper to the desk. (In some countries there will be a comma before the ‘and’ as well as the ones after books and pens, but not in UK usage.)
- It is also used to emphasise a noun: he was a tall, heavy-set man.
- Use a comma when there are two sentences that are linked together by a preposition: Mary had the hots for George, but he wasn’t interested in her.
- When affirming or negating, you need a comma after the yes or no: no, I don’t like you. Yes, I think your bum looks fat in that dress.
- You need a comma after ‘therefore’, ‘furthermore’, ‘however’ and ‘but’, when those words are used as modifiers.
- When there is an interruption in a sentence, you need commas either side of it to separate it from the rest of the sentence: the music teacher, short-tempered as always, told us to keep quiet.
- The same rule applies if you have an additional clause in the sentence: the pianist finished with a Chopin sonata, which my husband loves, and the audience stood as one to applaud.
- Use a comma to separate phrases: he knew how I felt, so I tried to avoid him.
- If you have a clause that precedes a subject (provided the sentence isn’t very short) you need a comma: when George and Mary get that look on their faces, we all know they are going to start fighting.
- Let’s say you want to show that someone or something is not what has been assumed, you would need a comma then, too: I’m trying to lose weight, not gain it.
I hope the above examples make it easier to know what to do with those pesky commas, but you might like to know that you’re in good company. Apparently Oscar Wilde once said: I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
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