N is for Nine Comma Pitfalls to Avoid
As an editor, the most common punctuation issues I see are with comma usage. Writers can avoid many comma pitfalls by mastering the conventions below.
1. A comma is placed before a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) that connects two independent clauses (complete sentences).
- Incorrect: Suzanne wants to attend the writing seminar and Nancy wants to go shopping.
- Correct: Suzanne wants to attend the writing seminar, and Nancy wants to go shopping.
2. Comma splice—a comma isn’t strong enough to connect two independent clauses.
- Incorrect: Nicholas rode his bike to the park, Jordan took the bus to the library.
- Correct: Nicholas rode his bike to the park, and Jordan took the bus to the library.
- Correct: Nicholas rode his bike to the park. Jordan took the bus to the library.
3. Introductory words, phrases, and clauses are followed by a comma.
- Incorrect: Before leaving for her trip Patti will have her car serviced.
- Correct: Before leaving for her trip, Patti will have her car serviced.
4. Nonessential information (also referred to as a nonrestrictive clause or parenthetical element is set off with commas.
A nonrestrictive clause adds extra detail and can be removed from a sentence without changing the meaning or losing the identifying/distinguishing fact.
- Incorrect: Mary Brown who is an avid reader has worked at the local bookstore for fifteen years.
- Correct: Mary Brown, who is an avid reader, has worked at the local bookstore for fifteen years.
5. Essential information doesn’t require commas.
If removed from the sentence, the meaning is changed or the identifying/distinguishing fact is lost.
- Incorrect: The young boys, who vandalized the park, are in police custody.
- Correct: The young boys who vandalized the park are in police custody.
6. Direct addresses are set off by commas.
- Incorrect: The book is on the table Danielle.
- Correct: The book is on the table, Danielle.
7. A comma isn’t needed when a coordinating conjunction isn’t connecting two independent clauses or separating three or more items/actions.
- Incorrect: Charlie ran to Danny’s house, and knocked on the door.
- Correct: Charlie ran to Danny’s house and knocked on the door.
8. A commas isn’t used when a dependent (or subordinate) clause follows an independent clause; however, use a comma after a dependent (or subordinate) clause when it comes before an independent clause.
- Incorrect: Paul and Linda enjoyed the hike, despite the rain.
- Correct: Paul and Linda enjoyed the hike despite the rain.
- Correct: Despite the rain, Paul and Linda enjoyed the hike.
9. Interrupters (words, phrases, or clauses that significantly break the flow of a sentence) are set off by commas.
- Incorrect: Nancy of course was late again.
- Correct: Nancy, of course, was late again.
- Incorrect: Martin’s bedroom was to say the least a pigsty.
- Correct: Martin’s bedroom was, to say the least, a pigsty.
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