Commas are often used like seasoning in writing. Some writers use too many and some not nearly enough. The position of every comma and every full-stop will often be open to interpretation by writers and grammar gurus. The position I am taking here is that these are suggestions to make the rules more comprehensible for you, dear reader.
A useful description I have found is: a comma is a sound of silence.
My favourite is “Punctuation lets a sentence talk, and it lets the reader hear it, almost as though it were being spoken.” (Tredinnick, M. p 132).
Our discussion today is confined to commas. These wonderful little punctuation marks perform an extensive range of functions. I will cover only the more common instances – whole chapters of books have been devoted to correct usage of the humble comma and I am not in competition with those volumes of sage advice.
My rough shorthand description of a comma is that it is a way of substituting ‘and’ in a sentence to keep the flow of meaning and to break longer sentences into chunks again to maintain the flow of meaning.
Items on a list need commas to separate them. If I wrote this string of words for that Media woman as a shopping list, how many items would I be expecting her to bring home – two, three or four?
torch batteries ice-cream cake
Inserting commas would make it very clear wouldn’t it?
Torch, batteries, ice-cream, cake OR
Torch, batteries, ice-cream cake OR
Torch batteries, ice-cream cake
In writing a sentence, the usual convention is that between the last two items being listed ‘and’ is inserted. Yes, dear readers, I know about the Oxford comma but I don’t think it is necessary to debate here!
Aunt Em asked the Media woman to buy a torch, batteries, ice-cream and cake.
You can separate adjectives and adverbs with these mighty little marks but not always.
Big, round, red balls – if you are tempted to put a comma between red and balls – say it aloud using ‘and’
Four big round balls – if you are tempted again, comma between four and round – say it aloud using ‘and’
More sticky, chocolate eggs – and again between more and sticky , chocolate and eggs.
A set of commas, puts a boundary around information that is additional, explanatory or an aside.
The information contained within the commas can be removed without damaging the meaning of the sentence. Don’t put commas around the information if it changes the meaning.
The lawnmower, which his brother had loaned him, was the murder weapon. The information within the commas can be removed.
As always dear readers, my approach is one of warm advice and gentle encouragement. Commas are an essential item in your communication tool kit.
If you require a more complex explanation of comma usage, I recommend a look at the following:
Truss, L 2006, ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!’, Profile Books Limited.
Woods, D, Anderson, W, Ward, L 2012, ‘English Grammar for Dummies’, 2nd Ed, John Wiley & Sons.
Cutts, M 1999, ‘Oxford Guide to Plain English’, Oxford University Press.
Tredinnick, M 2008, ‘The Little Green Grammar Book’, University of New South Wales Press.