National Punctuation Day: Comma Sense

shaq“Go tell your pops and your mama,
That Shaq is the man, period, comma.”
– Shaquille O’Neal, Shaq Diesel

With these lyrics, Shaq, the Big Aristotle, reveals that, despite once leading the NBA in points per game, he has a difficult time with commas. He’s not alone. With National Punctuation Day on September 24, one of our developers asked us to set the record (and Shaq) straight on that curvy little coquette the comma.

There’s a punctuation pandemic out there: “Use a comma whenever you would pause in speech.” That rule needs to be thrown in the garbage, lit on fire and buried in the ground. Everyday speech is filled with insignificant interjections and superfluous switchbacks, and aiming to replicate speech in technical or persuasive writing would result in a mess. The brain has ways of parsing out speech that just doesn’t apply to words on a page or screen.

So forget everything you know. Here are your rules for commas:

1) Lists
This is the easiest rule. Use commas to separate items within a list of three or more objects. As for that last object with the conjunction? The “or soup” in “fries, salad or soup” (or “fries, salad, or soup”)? Well, we won’t venture to regulate which way you swing on that. The important thing is to be consistent. Establish a style guide and decide for yourself whether the serial comma is right for you.

2) Separate Clauses
Clauses are the smallest unit of complete sentences. They can be very small: “Mathias biked.” They can be very long: “Mathias was dressed in an argyle sweater vest when he mounted his bike to depart for work.”

They can also be joined together, and this is where the comma comes in. See? We just did it there. “They can also be joined together” is an independent clause—one complete sentence. “This is where the comma comes in” is another. When using a conjunction (and, but, or, etc.) to join two complete clauses, put a comma before the conjunction.

3) Parentheticals
A parenthetical is a bit of information that isn’t vital to a sentence. It might provide a deeper explanation, or it might just be an afterthought. (It comes from the same root as parentheses, which is why we sometimes use those to separate extra info.) Commas, you may have noticed, can also be used to enclose parentheticals.

A good test is to try to take the parenthetical out of the sentence. If the sentence still makes sense, you’re in the right. If not, then it’s not actually a parenthetical. A good example of this is the first sentence of this article: “With these lyrics, Shaq, the Big Aristotle, reveals that, despite once leading the NBA in points per game, he has a difficult time with commas.”

  • We can take out the bit about his points per game.
  • We can also remove his nickname, which is a specific kind of parenthetical: an appositive.

What remains is a complete sentence: “With these lyrics, Shaq reveals that he has a difficult time with commas.”

There are tons of other uses for commas: in dates and place names, deciphering between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives and so on. But what we’ve offered here are the three broadest, most-used rules. When in doubt, go to your style guide or ask a writer. They love bragging. In fact…

Writers, comma, the greatest, comma,
Taught you punctuation, so tell your mama.

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