Over the weekend, I spent some time editing articles (identities hidden)--not for content, particularly, but for the pesky little errors that make language purists throw up their hands in despair. Does a misplaced comma matter? Well, yes it does, if it gives your reader the impression that you're not a polished (or well-edited) writer.
I understand that rules about how to use commas make you turn purple. No wonder! But instead of taking a correction as an insult, let’s see if we can make the rules easier.
Commas are a relatively recent invention. When the Romans ﬁrst started writing things down, they didn’t have punctuation marks. They didn’t have spaces for that matter, or lower case letters.
Just as spaces showed a reader when one word stopped and another started, so commas told a reader when to breathe. They were especially welcome when sentences grew longer than “Me hungry. Kill deer.”
Some rules are pretty straight-forward. If you start a sentence with phrases or clauses that describe or limit the main idea in some way, you need to separate that group of words from the main clause, as:
"While I was reading your book, I found myself irritated by missing commas."
If you write a sentence that has two complete ideas in it, they need to be joined by a comma and a conjunction, not just run together, as :
I walked into the room, and everybody stared at me.
On other occasions, a comma becomes necessary to make the meaning clearer. Try reading this sentence out loud: “At the grocery we bought the following items: peas and carrots and macaroni and cheese and chicken and dumplings.”
Obviously you need to replace some of the ands with commas, but which ones? That will depend on how many separate items appeared on the cash register tape. Did you buy peas, carrots, a box of dry macaroni, a package of cheese, a whole chicken, and some frozen dumplings for a total of six items? Or did you just buy three: peas and carrots, macaroni and cheese, and chicken and dumplings? Read the two versions aloud and listen for the places where you take a breath or at least pause.
Other comma rules apply to things like appositives, direct address, and restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses. You won’t need such esoteric terms if you apply the pause rule. Consider this scenario. A ﬁre occurred in the middle of the night at a rooming house where several men were living. Deaths resulted. How many died?
“The men who were asleep died in the ﬁre.” (The sleepers died. The poker-players did not.) “The men, who were asleep, died in the ﬁre.” (They were all asleep and they all died.)
Listen for the pauses. Add commas.
As an aside, academics sometimes argue over what is called the Oxford comma. That’s the one that appears before the ﬁnal “and” in a series. When I read a series of terms (like pens, notebooks, pencils, and erasers), I hear a pause after pencils, so I always use the Oxford comma. In other words, I follow my own rule about hearing commas. You may, however, encounter an editor who thinks that extra comma is not only unnecessary but adds an extra expense--one likely to drag the publisher into instant bankruptcy. She will tell you that a comma takes the place of an “and”, so you never need both. My advice? Don’t waste your breath on an argument in which both sides are right. Gracefully bow out, taking your Oxford commas with you. (Because editors always win.)
RULE: A NATURAL PAUSE INDICATES THE NEED FOR A COMMA. PUT IT IN.