Commas can be sneaky little beasts. They do far more than simply indicate a pause in a sentence, and a writer should never underestimate the importance of using them correctly. Misusing a comma can change the meaning of your sentence and, at the very least, make your otherwise fine writing look sloppy and unprofessional. Although a good editor will clean up a writer’s punctuation, I’ve often seen comma errors crop up in published books, blog posts and blurbs. Here are a few examples of common mistakes.
I see this error all the time in romance novel blurbs:
INCORRECT: Eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Grady Turner, knew it was wrong to fall in love with a patient.
An appositive is a group of words that identify or explain a noun or pronoun; the appositive is called restrictive if removing it changes the meaning of the sentence. In the example above, “Dr. Grady Turner” is a restrictive appositive — if you remove the words, the sentence makes no sense. A restrictive appositive does not use commas.
CORRECT: Eminent psychiatrist Dr. Grady Turner knew it was wrong to fall in love with a patient.
On the other hand, a nonrestrictive appositive provides additional information about the noun or pronoun, but can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. A nonrestrictive appositive is set off by commas. In the example below, “an eminent psychiatrist” is the nonrestrictive appositive.
CORRECT: Dr. Grady Turner, an eminent psychiatrist, knew it was wrong to fall in love with a patient.
The Listing Comma
The listing comma basically replaces the word “and”. It can be used in a list of adjectives that all modify the same noun. For example:
CORRECT: He longed to kiss her plump, glossy lips.
In the above example, the comma could be replaced by “and” the sentence would still. However, I’ve often seen examples like this:
INCORRECT: He gave her an antique, gold necklace.
INCORRECT: She wore a red, lace bra.
You couldn’t replace the comma with “and” in either example. In the first example, “gold” modifies necklace, but “antique” modifies “gold necklace”, so the modifiers are not both modifying the same noun.
CORRECT: He gave her an antique gold necklace.
CORRECT: She wore a red lace bra.
Beginning a Sentence with a Conjunction
Despite what your teacher may have told you, it’s OK to start a sentence with “And” or “But.” Just don’t use a comma after it.
INCORRECT: Wendy knew it was wrong to stare at him. But, he was so handsome, she could not take her eyes off him.
CORRECT: Wendy knew it was wrong to stare at him. But he was so handsome, she could not take her eyes off him.
However, you should use a comma if the conjunction is followed by a pair of commas enclosing a parenthetical phrase:
CORRECT: Wendy was drawn to his looks. But, handsome as he was, she could not stand his personality.
An introductory element is a clause, phrase or word that appears before the main clause of the sentence. An introductory element can be offset by a comma, but it isn’t always necessary. You may, if you choose, omit the comma after a brief introductory element:
CORRECT: By evening, they were in love.
ALSO CORRECT: By evening they were in love.
CORRECT: Briefly, he explained his reasons.
ALSO CORRECT: Briefly he explained his reasons.
This decision sometimes depends on whether or not you want the reader to take a pause. For instance, when “Of course” comes at the beginning of a sentence, don’t use a comma if the phrase is being used emphatically, especially in speech:
INCORRECT: “Of course, I love you,” she sobbed.
CORRECT: “Of course I love you,” she sobbed.
In fiction, depending on your writing style, there is room to bend the rules of punctuation (Stephen King’s comma splices used to drive me nuts until I got used to his style). But it must be done with specific intent, not haphazardly, so that you don’t confuse the reader or come across as careless. Know the rules before you break them! If you’re ever in doubt, there are tons of resources, both in print and online, to help you master comma usage.
Finally, to lighten a rather dry and serious post, here’s a corny comma joke:
What’s the difference between a cat and a comma?
One has claws at the ends of its paws; the other has a pause at the end of a clause.