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By Lisa Lickel
Note: This post first appeared on Author Culture in 2016.
Commas and apostrophe misuse in rampant in the world. I’ve
heard everything from “stick one in when you need to take a breath” to avoid
them at the end of lists. I submit to you that if the only reason you put a
comma in your sentence is when you want your reader to take a breath, your
sentence is too long. If you don’t use one between the last two disparate
actions or objects in a list, you end up with the classic Eats Shoots & Leaves - both the English and American versions.
Commas are needed to avoid confusion. They are needed to circumvent
run-ons which can result in multiple meanings. They are necessary to prevent dangling
and misplaced modifiers. Besides office-type little usages, there are five
particular places to use commas in American English. (Read Eats Shoots &Leaves for Queen’s English usages.)
Use a comma after an introductory word/interjection/direct
address of a person, or phrase. Be consistent.
Oh, what a beautiful morning!
Why, whatever could you mean?
Beatrice, please pass the potatoes.
Mother, may I?
When encountering a UFO, one must attempt a peaceful
greeting before shooting.
If you bring me eggs, I will make omelets for breakfast.
No, ma’am. (This usage with just the two words is becoming
more rare…omitting a comma is acceptable as long as it’s consistent. But it’s
awkward when you have to use one in a longer introductory phrase.)
Use a comma with dialog tags THAT DEFINE a manner of speech
NOT an action.
“Please pass the potatoes,” Beatrice said/whispered/yodeled.
(NOT smiled, laughed, frowned)
She said, “If you bring me eggs, I will make omelets.”
“Yes, sir,” Mother said.
Use a comma to separate INDEPENDENT clauses. I’m not always
sure how this happened but think of it this way: If you can separate a sentence
in to two sentences that can stand alone (not counting a conjunction or joining
word) use a comma. If one part of the sentences is a fragment (not a complete
sentence), then do not use a comma.
We gathered eggs, and then we made omelets.
The new house is finished, and the garage is large enough to
hold our two vehicles.
Hold on to your dreams, yet take care of practical matters.
Beatrice asked Mom to make her wedding dress and scheduled
Use a comma to surround a parenthetical phrase or word.
Think of it this way: If you include a phrase that adds to or defines something
that you could put in parentheses, use commas on BOTH sides of where you would
use parentheses. The parenthetical phrase is something that, if removed, doesn’t
necessarily change the meaning of the sentence, or add to the main idea, or it interrupts briefly the
main thought. NOTE: The use of commas surrounding appositives—words that rename
the preceding noun—are not always absolutely necessary unless there is
potential confusion or multiple objects.
Tell Phyllis she may bring her cat and kittens, along with
her poodle Toby, on the trip.
My aunt and uncle, John and Barbara, were invited to the
My sister Beatrice is getting married.
His son John will soon be five years old.
Toby and Fifi, our pets, will be lonely without us.
In the future, however, we won’t need to carry money.
Use commas to separate items in a list or actions or a
series. Use a comma between ALL of the items, including the last two items if
they are separate items/actions/nouns, etc. Likewise, use a comma between
adjectives that can be reversed.
Beatrice set the table with the good china, soup bowls,
cloth napkins, and silverware.
Mother called Jimmy, Bobby, and Susan to lunch.
Jennifer ordered eggs benedict with her toast and jam.
Pack a sweater and jeans along with your toothbrush, camera,
and suntan lotion.
It’s going to be a hot, windy day.
My aunt’s new house is a two-story, red brick mansion.
Use commas to separate numbers over a thousand (no space)—EXCEPT
in page numbers or calendar years:
There were 1,114 in attendance.
Please turn to page 1114 in your textbooks.
In the year 2525, people will no longer need money to trade.
Your tax bill comes to $3,425.
Use commas to separate dates, addresses, and cities and
countries, or states or other municipalities (space):
My cousin was born on July 23, 1977.
We visited Winnipeg, Canada in October of 2005.
I celebrated my work anniversary on February 17, 1988.
We live at 245 Sunnybrook Lane, Vanay, Oceana.
Beatrice’s new address is 711 First Street, Sinclair,
Virginia 00555. (no comma before zip code)
Madison, Wisconsin is a beautiful capital city.
Use commas in opening and closing letters/communication:
Please accept this letter of intent…
Finally, this article should be required reading for everyone. Please read it. Please.
Lisa Lickel is a Wisconsin author who loves books, collects dragons,
and writes inspiring fiction. She also writes short stories, feature articles,
and radio theater, and loves to encourage new authors through mentoring,
speaking, and leading workshops. Lisa is a member of the Wisconsin Writer’s
Association, the Chicago Writer’s Association, and vice president/instructor
for Novel-In-Progress Bookcamp and Writing Retreat, Inc. She is an avid book
reviewer and blogger, and a freelance editor. Find more at www.LisaLickel.com.
Her release, Centrifugal Force, is book 2 in the Forces of Nature fiction series.
secret love child, a stolen ring, and international blackmail pivot on the
power to forgive
the turmoil of 2011, an American college administrator and a German
socio-economics expert attempt to rectify the past to save their children and
preserve the fragile world in crisis.
Michels made a poor choice which resulted in her biggest blessing, her
daughter, Maeve. When the father of that blessing returns decades later, she
knows he wants something she’d taken from him. Rachel has lived in near
seclusion and mistrust, fearful of losing the one person who’s kept her life
from coming unglued.
Gervas Friedemann returns to Wisconsin, seeking a missing ancient artifact,
along with help for his oldest daughter who is suffering from a rare genetic
blood disorder. With the European Union at stake, blackmail could negatively
impact a crucial vote in the German Parliament unless Gervas recovers an
irreplaceable relic he left in the United States on a lecture tour a lifetime
ago. He knows who took the piece of history he once flaunted—the woman who had
stolen his soul. He only hopes she still has the ring.
Coming March 1, 2019, Parhelion, book 3 in the Forces of Nature series.
Parhelion—prisms dogging the sun.
it’s a rainbow hope of reaching the stars for a small group of
preparing to preserve life.
If humanity wants to survive, there
should be ground rules.
Maeve Michels hit earth hard,
falling in love with a former Air Force test pilot. No longer in the military,
Harry Kane’s mysterious work as a consultant for a space engineering company
piques Maeve’s interest. Maeve’s sixth sense says there’s more to Harry than
he’s telling her, but with the world about to fall apart, she must decide to
trust him with her future. Harry is keeping a secret from Maeve—he has to, or
his one chance at being a real hero goes up in flames with the rest of the
planet. His assignment: get her to join the program, and him. Hopefully
With war no longer empty threats
and posturing, Maeve and Harry are about to take part in the most important
experiment in human history. Bigger secrets threaten not only their survival
but their fragile co-existence with the cosmos.
If you could choose, what kind of a
world do you want to live in?