The Disappearing Comma

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When is a comma not a comma? When it’s missing! The most important job for a comma is to prevent confusion for the reader. If a comma isn’t there, the reader may become lost.

With faster technologies comes faster communication, which in turn leads to less punctuation as we pound our fingers across the keyboard at an ever increasing speed. And as a result, many pieces of writing, whether they be fiction or non-fiction, are appearing without the use of commas.

Let’s re-write that last sentence without the commas-

And as a result many pieces of writing whether they be fiction or non-fiction are appearing without the use of commas.

How many times did you need to read it before you grasped its meaning? Most readers will need to read an un-punctuated sentence at least twice before they subconsciously add their own punctuation. If you are making your readers work twice as hard when they are reading your work they will not enjoy what they are reading.

Some of the many reasons to use commas are-

• To define run-on lists
• To avoid ambiguity
• To define strings of adjectives
• To separate coordinate clauses
• To define a coordinate conjunction
• To define defining and non-defining clauses and phrases
• To introduce adjectival clauses and phrases
• To introduce adverbial clauses and phrases
• To define introductory and transitional expressions
• To enclose parenthetic expressions
• To isolate an apposition
• To define a shared element of a statement
• To show omissions where words or numerals are expressed
• To separate titles from affiliations

We usually use commas to separate different parts of sentences in order to make the sentence easier to understand. Comma use in general can cover a large area so we will only touch on one area in this article.

The most commonly confused use for commas is in a run-on list. An example: Tom, Dick, and Harry. When a list is used within a sentence a comma is used to separate each item. The debate still rages, though, as to whether a final comma is needed (as in the example above).

The Australian style manual says not to use a final comma unless it is needed for clarity, yet many American style manuals say to always include the final comma. And the classic from Strunk also says to include the final comma (www.amazon.com/dp/097522980X). This type of comma is often referred to as a serial or Oxford comma.

It is also suggested that the writer should gage whether adding the final comma will aid the reader in understanding the sentence’s meaning, and if so, add it. Newspapers often leave out the last comma to save space, and many magazines and publishers will have their own style guides for writers to follow. Whichever you choose, be sure to stay consistent throughout.

Many grammar experts claim that the use of commas is on the decline. And some even say that it is a good thing as it allows the writer to develop their own style. So the use of commas can be a matter of judgment and personal preference, but always try to aim for clarity.


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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