Controlling Your Commas

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Confused about when to use commas? Here are 5 tips that you may find helpful when trying to control your commas.

1. Use commas between the clauses in compound sentences. This is where you join two sentences together with a conjunction – a word like and, but, so.

Example: The cat leapt, but the mouse escaped.

The two clauses could form two separate, simple sentences.

2. Put commas around words that you can leave out and still have a sentence that makes sense. The words inside the commas will be clauses or phrases that give additional meaning.

Example: As the cat leapt from the garden wall, the mouse, which had been snuffling around the flower bed, scuttled back into its hole.

This simple advice is particularly helpful because you don’t have to recognise a phrase, or know the difference between an adjectival or an adverbial clause, or a dependent or independent clause, and you can still get it right.

The clause about the mouse in example 2 above is adjectival. It is also a dependent clause, because if we read it on its own, we don’t know what it refers to. But none of that really matters when you’re writing, because you know it gives extra meaning and you have to put commas around it.

3. About the exception for clauses or phrases after conjunctions.

In the middle sentence of the paragraph above, there is a comma before the word because, but not after it to separate the clause, if we read it on its own. That is an exception to the rule we’ve just been discussing. If it follows a conjunction like and, so, but, or because, there is no need for a comma before the clause. This is an important one to note, because, if, as I am deliberately doing here, you include these commas, your work reads in a stilted, difficult way, and you could be accused of overuse of commas.

4. Adverbial clauses are clauses which tell more of the why, where or when of the activity of the sentence – the verb. Sometimes they are crucial to the meaning of the sentence. If that is the case, there is another rule exception; they don’t have to follow a comma.

Example: The cat leapt from the garden wall when it saw the mouse snuffling around the flower bed.

However, if you make that last clause an introductory one, you must include the comma.

Example: When it saw the mouse snuffling around the flower bed, the cat leapt from the garden wall.

5. With clarity of meaning the comma changes the meaning in the examples below.

Example: Alice thought the mouse had been snuffling around the flower bed.

Example: Alice, thought the mouse, had been snuffling around the flower bed.

These are not the only uses for commas, but they are often the ones writers get wrong. With a little extra knowledge about sentence structure that includes phrases and clauses, they are less likely to make mistakes with commas.


Kristy Taylor is a syndicated freelance journalist with articles and short stories strewn across all forms of media. She has written and published numerous books, and is the executive editor of KT Publishing, which encompasses several web sites. For free listings of short story competitions visit http://www.shortstorycompetitions.com

To contact Kristy, email her at mail@kristytaylor.com


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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