Comma Confusion Clarified

Grammar encompasses the words we use as well as how we string them together and punctuate them. Confusion about comma use abounds.

My book, Grammar for People Who Hate Rules, addresses four scenarios of this often used — and often misused — punctuation mark: with Latin abbreviations (chapter 29), with academic degrees (chapter 30), with conjunctions (chapter 41), and with but (chapter 42).

This post focuses on commas when they are used to separate clauses, both independent and dependent.

An independent clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb and that expresses a complete thought. I often refer to an independent clause as a complete sentence.

We decided to take a bus to the movie.
Susan is a gifted artist.
The employee handbook defines our corporate dress code.

When you connect two independent clauses, use a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet, because) and a comma to separate them:

We decided to take a bus to the movie. It stops a block from the theater.
We decided to take a bus to a movie, because it stops a block from the theater.

Susan is a gifted artist. Her prices are too high for my budget.
Susan is a gifted artist, but her prices are too high for my budget.

The employee handbook defines our corporate dress code. Few people follow its dictates.
The employee handbook defines our corporate dress code, yet few people follow its dictates.

If you use a comma but no conjunction to separate the clauses, you get what is known as a run-on sentence:

We decided to take a bus to the movie, it stops a block from the theater.
Susan is a gifted artist, her prices are too high for my budget.
The employee handbook defines our corporate dress code, few people follow its dictates.

Note: A semicolon where there is a comma also would convert each example above to an acceptable construction.

A dependent clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a verb but does not express a complete thought.

When we decided to take a bus to the movie …
Although Susan is an artist …
Because the handbook defines our corporate dress code …

When you combine a dependent clause with an independent clause, use a comma to connect them.

When we decided to take a bus to the movie, we checked the bus schedule.
Although Susan is a gifted artist, her prices are too high for my budget.
Because the employee handbook defines our corporate dress code, you shouldn’t have problems deciding what to wear to work.

In American English, commas always go inside quotation marks:

“Let’s go to a movie,” she said.
The art critic described Susan’s paintings as “exquisite,” and I agree.
You might call our dress code “arcane,” but it is not open to debate.  

Final note: A comma indicates a pause. Read your full sentence aloud or in your head to help you decide if you need a comma to make your meaning clear.

Grammar puzzles pop up every day. Let me know what you read or hear that sounds wrong. We’ll learn together!

Kathy Watson
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Kathy Watson

Kathy has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)

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2 thoughts on “Comma Confusion Clarified

    1. Kathy WatsonKathy Watson Post author

      Glenyce, I avoid using parentheses whenever I can because guidelines for their use are so confusing.

      Here is one example from my book and a second from another book I use for reference. Both show the comma outside of the closing parenthesis. I can’t think of an example where it would be placed inside.

      “She had planned to present her travel report at the meeting (She visited our Ohio subsidiary in November.), but she couldn’t get the details pulled together in time.”

      Note there is a period inside the parentheses because the phrase within them is a complete sentence, but the comma falls outside of the closing parenthesis.

      Another example (from someone else’s grammar book):
      “If a sentence ends in an ellipsis (three dots that indicate an omission), put a period first to show that the sentence is over.”

      There is no punctuation inside the parentheses because the phrase is not a complete sentence, but there is a comma in the overall statement, and it falls outside of the parentheses.

      I hope this helps.

      And thanks for asking!

      Kathy

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