How To Become The Ruler of Commas

Or, how to use the comma right.

This very small piece of punctuation is one that is more often than not used too often, or not enough. To be honest I struggle with it too and need to reach for The Chicago Manual of Style when in doubt.

This style guide tells us that a comma is nothing more than an indication of even the smallest interruption of thought or sentence structure.

And that is what often goes wrong, we sort of know the how, why, and when to use the comma, but our individual idea of what ‘the smallest interruption’ is.

That’s why there are a few rules, but mainly it is a matter of good judgement with keeping in mind that a sentence has to remain easy to read.

Doing it right makes me smile, how about you?

Now, let’s look at a ‘difficult’ rule on comma use.

The compound sentence.

Generally, as a rule of thumb remember when two clauses are joined by a conjunction use a comma before the conjunction. But …. Yes, of course there is an exemption, when the clauses are short and closely related, don’t use a comma.

She closed the door to keep the animals out, but the dog had already sneaked in and left a present on the sofa.

The first two clauses need to be separated by the comma in front of the conjunction (but), while the middle and last clauses are both short and closely related and therefor do not need to be separated by a comma.

Which refers to the rule that when a sentence has a compound predicate (two or more verbs–Sneaked in and left–with the same subject–the dog) the comma should not be used between the parts of the compound predicate.

If the sentence consists of short, independent clauses and the last two are joined by a conjunction, commas should be placed between the clauses and before the conjunction.

He told her to close the door, she stood to shut the animals out, but the dog sneaked in with a dead bird in its mouth.

To make it even more difficult, if the clauses are very long or are subdivided by a comma, a semicolon may be used between them even if they are joined by a conjunction.

Lucy, who had already decided to shut the animals out, stood to shut the door when her partner asked her to; but at that moment the dog sneaked in and dropped a dead bird on the sofa.

Now, let’s give our brain a little rest and look at an easier topic.

The Oxford comma. 

The what? 🙂 The comma before the conjunction with which you end a listing.

I have baked cookies, pies, tarts, and crumbles.


The man is tall, dark, and handsome.

Pretty clear cut, you either use the Oxford comma or you don’t. This is one of the uses of the comma that is not set in stone, but if you use it once in your manuscript, use it throughout. As with all things style, be consistent.

That’s it for now, do come back for more next week, because there’s much more to say about this nifty, little piece of punctuation.


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