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.

Quotation and Punctuation

And she said, “Let’s look at quotation marks and punctuation.”

wtflucille ball

The name of those nifty little floaters, the quotation marks, gives us a decent clue as to what they are used for–to set apart what a person has said at any point in time, which is later repeated verbatim by another. But quoted speech needs punctuation, and it needs to be in the right place. Let’s see if we can give you an insight on how this should be done.
 Single word quote.
 Even if a quote is just a single quoted word, it goes inside quotation marks.
 She said, “Walk.”
 You see? The period also goes inside the quotation marks to end the sentence as well as the quote itself. Easy, and logical.

Quoting a question.

What if the quote is a question? Then the question mark goes inside quotation marks.

She asked, “Can you walk?”

But what if we ask about a quote? Ah, there you have an exception to the rule. Then the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.

Can you tell me if she said, “If he can’t walk, he falls”?

There is no punctuation ending the quoted sentence. That’s because we only need one ending punctuation with punctuation marks and, like in nature, the strongest wins. Question trumps period. Hence, no period after falls is needed. And what if there’s a question about a quoted question? Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? It’s not. Question and quote have equally strong question marks, so which one should win? Since we use only one ending punctuation (we’re talking about the US rules now), we place it inside the quotation marks.
Can you tell me if she asked, “Did he fall?”

Quoting inside a quote.

Now let’s get wild and quote inside a quote. Do we then end up with rows and rows of quotation marks? Nah, that would be funny and confusing. You can just use a set of double ones for the whole quote and single ones for the quote inside the quote. (Remember we’re still looking at the US rules.) Can you still follow what I’m saying? Wait, let me show you.

He said, “Can you tell me if she asked, ‘Did he fall?’”
As you can see, there are only three floaters at the end of the sentence and again the ending punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.

A direct quote.

To make it even simpler, we only use quotation marks to set off a direct quotation.
“When did he fall?” she asked.
But not when you use the following sentence: She asked when he fell.
That is essentially the same as above, only it is not a direct quote. Hence, no quotation marks.
Exceptions, don’t you just love them? They establish the rules and keep us on our tippytoes.

Block quoting.

What if we have a really long quote? Say, more than three lines in length? (That is actually the rule, or was it the exception?) Anyway, when we have such a long quote, there are no quotation marks at all. Instead we use the colon.
What! A colon? I thought a colon’s used for the introduction of a list? Yeah, it is, but we use it for looong quotes, too.
Let’s take a sidestep into colon land. When a quote is too long for proper quotation marks, we use the colon after the introductory sentence and leave a blank line above and below the quote.
Not that we will use block quotes often in fiction, but if you should ever write a non-fiction article and you need to quote another source, it will come in handy to know how to handle a big chunk of text.
Like in this following example where a trait from a certain character is unearthed by the use of quoting other data.
The old text presented explained it like this:

George G. Gruesommich went walking in a bush and stared at the trees until he was an absolute, green-eyed, brown-fingered, soil-smeared forest fiend. His feet were so dirty, he could no longer run, and he fell on his nose, which was now just as soil-smeared as the rest of his body.

After reading that, the reason for his disliking of gardening is obvious.

Quoting text that has an error in spelling or grammar.

And finally there is always the chance that you have to quote something with a SPaG error. For that we have sic, which basically means “This is how the original material was.” We place it in italics and in brackets after the mistake.

In the other text it was written, “This is how the originale [sic] material was.”

I hope this summary gives you a better understanding of quotation marks and how to properly punctuate around them. Go on, have your characters speak up, or let them even quote one another. Have fun “quoting the quoted.”