Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Commas and I go way back. All the way back to that day in Mrs. L'Huillier's class when Randy Holden's bright blond hair fell so perfectly over the collar of his shirt. That day, I learned he kept a cricket in his pencil sharpener and liked green better than blue and thought Pokemon was stupid. I did not, however, learn that commas separate independent clauses when joined by a conjunction. Until I attended a critique group, I thought my memories of Randy and his blond hair were more valuable than comma knowledge. As it turns out, I've grown up to write novels, so I do need to know about commas. Plus, Randy is bald now anyway.
Learning comma rules as an adult wasn't as easy as I thought it would be. For one thing, everyone runs around using vocabulary words like they mean something. Thanks to Bradley Garrett's brown eyes, I missed the lesson on clauses. I blame Adrian Reyes's brooding looks for my lack of coordinating adjective skills and Chris Washington's jokes for distracting me during the lesson on introductory adverbs. For another thing, in fiction, we tend to write complex sentences which may make comma rules seem contradictory. Lemme tell you what I've learned.
These tips aren't for A+ students who weren't lucky (or unlucky) enough to sit next to Dylan Jordan's eyelashes. It's for those of you who daydreamed your education away like I did.
*Names of boys have been altered for obvious reasons.
1. Comma to Join Independent Clauses
An independent clause is a fancy term for a group of words that can stand alone to form a complete sentence. In order to have a complete sentence, there must be a subject and a verb. There can be other words too, but there must be a subject and a verb.
Randy loves Carly.
While this sentence never has been and never will be a fact, it is an independent clause. Randy is the subject, and loves is the verb, and it is a complete thought. (Side note, John Mayer has a song called "Love is a Verb," and he's not wrong.)
He wants to tell her.
More incorrect information, but it is another independent clause. He is the subject, and wants to tell is the verb phrase.
Randy loves Carly. He wants to tell her.
These two sentences are just fine as written, but sometimes we want to link these to thoughts into one sentence. There are a few ways to do this correctly.
Randy loves Carly, and he wants to tell her.
The above example uses a comma and a conjunction. A conjunction is a word that links clauses together. (We can get into the technicalities of conjunctions later, but the basic ones, or coordinating conjunctions, are: for, and, nor, but, or, yet. FANBOYS) In this case, and is appropriate.
Randy loves Carly and wants to tell her.
This is correct because we deleted he, making the second thought a dependent clause. A dependent clause is a portion of a sentence reliant on another portion. It may contain both a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone.
Randy wants to tell Carly he loves her.
This example eliminates the need to use a comma or a conjunction while still fusing the two original thoughts into one sentence.
The above sentences are correct. Yet, there are a lot of ways to screw combining the two ideas, and I'm going to explain why they're wrong.
Randy loves Carly and he wants to tell her.
This is a run-on sentence, meaning two independents are joined without proper punctuation. Adding the comma makes this a compound sentence rather than a run-on.
Randy loves Carly, and wants to tell her.
This is incorrect because the portion after the comma is no longer independent; it's missing a subject. This rule always confused me because it seems like Randy is the implied subject. However, because of the comma, it separates and wants to tell her from the rest of the sentence, making it a dependent clause. To make the above sentence correct, we simply omit the comma. Knowing when not to use a comma is just as important as knowing when to use one.
2. Sentences that start with an introductory word group
Sometimes, we want to tell the reader what the the second half of the sentence is referring to before we get to the point. We do this by using an introductory clause, or a dependent clause.
When Randy smiles, a dimple appears.
When Randy smiles, his eyes crinkle.
Now, bear with me. The next part is on the complicated side of things, but we write fiction, so sentences are rarely as cut and dry as the examples above.
Say we want to join two apparently independent clauses to one introductory word group.
When Randy smiles, a dimple appears and his eyes crinkle.
I know this is confusing. In the previous examples, a dimple appears and his eyes crinkle were both independent clauses. However, because both clauses are dependent on the introductory word group for the sentence to hold it's meaning, they are not independent.
When Randy smiles, a dimple appears, and his eyes crinkle.
To reiterate, the above example is incorrect. The meaning has changed. It now says: When Randy smiles, a dimple appears. His eyes crinkle.
To further confuse you, if we switched the order of the sentence, the comma is no longer necessary, yet the meaning of the sentence remains the same.
A dimple appears and his eyes crinkle when Randy smiles.
We do not need a comma when the dependent clause follows the independent clause.
3. Introductory adverbs
Introductory verbs are used much the same way an introductory word grouping is used.
Finally, Randy turns around.
Also like an introductory word group, we don't need the comma if the order of the sentence is reversed.
Randy turns around finally.
The sentence isn't wrong with a comma at the end, but it's nonessential and may imply an unintended pause.
4. Using commas to define or clarify a word already used in the sentence
By now, we know who Randy is, but say you didn't. We could define his role in the story by inserting it into the sentence.
Randy, the boy with blond hair, winks at Carly.
If we take away the boy with blond hair, the sentence would be complete. It's added for story-telling, but not required for the sentence to be grammatically correct.
Randy winks at Carly.
5. Commas to separate quotes from the rest of the sentence.
This one was embarrassingly hard for me to grasp. I must have been drawing pictures of Zeke Middleton and I running off into the sunset together during this lesson, because I wrote my entire first novel with the comma on the wrong side of the quotes. (Thanks, Emily, for editing that beast.)
I could, and will, devote an entire post dedicated to the details of writing dialogue, but for now, I'll restrict my ramblings to commas.
Carly's mom says, "You're boy crazy."
The comma goes before the quote--without extra spaces, Young Carly--when the quote follows the speaker.
"You're boy crazy," Carly's mom says.
When the speaker follows the quote, the comma goes inside the quotes. Again, no extra spaces.
Carly's mom says, "You're boy crazy," and rolls her eyes.
This is a combination of the previous two rules. The comma is needed to introduce the speaker and to signal that the sentence is not complete.
If you're confused, try rearranging the sentence.
"You're boy crazy," Carly's mom says and rolls her eyes.
Carly's mom rolls her eyes and says, "You're boy crazy."
They're both right!
7. Comma when directly speaking to someone (or something) in a sentence.
Unless you're writing in second person, this rule will be used within dialogue.
The comma helps the reader know the speaker is speaking to someone, rather than about them.
"I love, Randy."
With the comma, the sentence tells Randy, "I love." It's a fact about the speaker; she loves.
"I love Randy."
Without the comma, the sentence declares love for Randy.
"Randy, I love."
It works the same way if we start by addressing Randy.
"I love, Randy, and I don't care who knows it."
When the name is in the middle of the sentence, the comma goes on either side of the name.
Not to be confused with:
"I love Randy, and I don't care who knows it."
While I do love Randy, and I don't care who knows it, it's not what I meant to say.
8. Oxford Comma
It goes by many names, and you think you don't need it, but you do. The Oxford Comma, or serial comma, is used in a list.
Carly likes Bradley, a boy with nice arms, and unicorn stickers.
This sentence clearly says Carly likes Bradley, she also likes a boy with nice arms, and she likes unicorn stickers. Take the second comma away, and the meaning is much different.
Carly likes Bradley, a boy with nice arms and unicorn stickers.
While it might be true that Bradley likes unicorn stickers, it is not the intended meaning of the sentence. Maybe your reader will understand the intent, but they may assume a boy with nice arms and unicorn stickers is meant to clarify who Bradley is.
That's all for now.