7 Ways NOT To Use Commas

7

Several commasComma rules? I don’t need no stinkin’ comma rules. I use my ear to determine whether or not I need a comma. If there is a pause, I insert a comma.

Honestly, that was my thinking in my naive, younger days. If it’s also your approach, let me recommend you think again. The comma-by-ear method doesn’t work — at least not consistently. I inevitably inserted unnecessary commas all over the place. My beloved proofreading wife (who is good at many things, including the finer points of comma usage) would patiently eradicate my many needless commas, and eventually convinced me to learn the rules myself.

Take my advice: learn the rules. There are only eleven rules for using commas. At the very least, it will make you incrementally superior to the billions of earthlings who do not know them!

And to help still further, here are seven rules for not using a comma (even if your ear tells you otherwise):

1. Don’t use a comma between the subject and its verb*.

Nope:  Francis, aimed his crossbow at the pterodactyl and fired.
Yup:  Francis aimed his crossbow at the pterodactyl and fired.

*An exception would be if a non-essential phrase or clause is inserted between the subject and verb. Even in this case, however, the commas serve to set off the phrase or clause, not merely to separate the subject and verb.

Example: Francis, an excellent marksman, aimed his crossbow at the pterodactyl and fired.

2. Don’t use a comma between compound subjects or between compound verbs.

Ugh: My plumber, and my dentist play bocce together on Wednesdays.

Ahh: My plumber and my dentist play bocce together on Wednesdays.

Yuck: Alex reached for the remote control, and knocked over the lava lamp.

Yum: Alex reached for the remote control and knocked over the lava lamp.

3. Don’t use a comma between items in a list if there are only two.

Uh-oh: Sarah brought nacho chips, and plastic spoons to the hoedown.

Mm-hm: Sarah brought nacho chips and plastic spoons to the hoedown.

4. Don’t use a comma to connect two clauses if the second clause is subordinate (i.e., dependent).

Frowny face:  Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined, because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers.

Smiley face: Mrs. Johnson’s garden was ruined because rabbits nibbled her cucumbers.

5. Don’t use a comma before a prepositional phrase.

Boo: I signaled to the mayor about the mustard, on his lip.

Hooray: I signaled to the mayor about the mustard on his lip.

6. Don’t use a comma after and or but.

Hiss!: During our nursing home visit, I challenged old Mrs. Blanton to some arm wrestling and, she only beat me three out of five rounds.

Huzzah!: During our nursing home visit, I challenged old Mrs. Blanton to some arm wrestling, and she only beat me three out of five rounds.

7. Don’t use a comma before a list.

Buzz!: Three of my favorite pastimes are, gerbil juggling, plant watering, and gargling.

Ding-ding-ding!: Three of my favorite pastimes are gerbil juggling, plant watering, and gargling.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian Wasko

Brian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.

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  1. Ron
    Ron06-22-2014

    1. I think you should let your readers know what style manual you are using for a reference.
    APA, MLA, or CMS The most universal is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS)

    2. Take a look at your rule #7 What is the style in use? MLA cancels out the last comma CMS Doesn’t. I agree with the “Don’t” use before a series but before the conjunction can cause a problem.

    Please clarify Manual usage.
    Thanks,
    Ron

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko06-24-2014

      1. I am not using any particular style manual, Ron. The comma rules I list are fairly universal and agreed upon by the three major manuals you mention.

      2. The comma you mention in #7 is the serial, or Oxford comma, and there is disagreement over its necessity. A serial comma appears in my examples in those sentences, but it is not the rule I am addressing. I address the serial comma here: http://blog.writeathome.com/index.php/2013/03/the-oxford-comma-debate-illustrated/

      • wassila
        wassila10-16-2015

        thank u that s good and beneficial

  2. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko01-20-2013

    Great question, Tim,

    My advice would be to go with your gut and not worry so much about grammatical correctness. I’m no expert in book contracts, but I have to believe that precision with commas isn’t much of a deciding factor with agents and publishers.

    The rules don’t require a comma, but many of the great writers of our generation make their own rules. Have you read any Cormac McCarthy, for example? He refuses to use quotation marks at all. I’m not recommending that kind of avant-gardism, especially if this is your first attempt at publication, but I think you have permission to take some poetic license.

    That’s my two cents. Thanks for asking! I’d love to know what you decide (and how it goes!)

    Best of luck.

  3. Tim Childress
    Tim Childress01-20-2013

    While writing the all-important “hook” for an agent query letter, I’ve been agonizing over whether or not to include the comma in a sentence that has the same grammatical structure as the following one:

    It’s one thing to take a few pictures, and another to risk your life on what many would call a fool’s errand; but the two go hand in hand when you’re trying to get close-up shots of Cape Buffalo in their natural habitat.

    When I take out the comma, the results somehow feel less readable, or at least less rhythmical (if that makes any sense); it’s almost as if the reader must back up to parse the division of ideas. Given that the hook is arguably the most important part of the query letter, I want the sentence to be both compelling and grammatically correct.

    Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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