Comma, Comma, Comma Chameleon: Common Comma Rules, Part 1

eats-shoots-leavesMany of you may catch the title’s reference to the 80’s song Karma Chameleon by Boy George. In fact, for a long time, I thought he was actually saying comma instead of karma. Often times, comma rules do seem to be a bit elusive like the ever-changing chameleon.

There are roughly 19 comma rules according to the Everyday English Handbook, 7 exceptions and a few notes thrown in for good measure—in case the 19 comma rules aren’t enough. It’s no wonder the poor comma is overused, underused, misused or left out completely. Who could possibly get it right every single time?

Today we’ll cover the very basic comma rules. In part 2 of this series we’ll go a bit deeper to the more advanced comma rules. But before we get to the nitty-gritty of the rules, I’d like to share one of my favorite excerpts from Lynne Truss’s book; Eats, Shoots and Leaves. This little ditty truly shows the importance of punctuation and it’s extremely cute too. I hope you enjoy!

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda walks towards the exit.
The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“I’m a panda” he says, “look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

“Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Punctuation DOES matter!

The most frequent role of a comma is basically to group or separate words (or items) in a sentence.

Apples, oranges, lemons, limes, melons.

*A comma should be used to set off a question within in a sentence:

The book is on the shelf, isn’t it?
The man fell off the roof, didn’t he?

*A comma is used to separate items or a series:

Writers should write, proofread, edit and submit their work by next week.

This sentence can also be written with a comma between the words ‘edit‘ & ‘and‘.

Writers should write, proofread, edit, and submit their work by next week.

Some people object to the final comma being omitted in a sentence like the above example. I personally think it’s a matter of style and preference on the writer’s part and how you were taught in school. My school taught that it wasn’t necessary to add a before the word ‘and’ when doing a series.

*If a series contains a coordinate conjunction there is no need for a comma.

I could hike and skydive and fish while on vacation.

My personal preference for a sentence of this nature would be:

I could hike, skydive and fish while on vacation.

*A comma goes between coordinate adjectives:

The serene, genteel nature of Mother Teresa was respected by many.

The tricky exception to that rule is: do not use a comma between two adjectives that do not modify the same word:

A bright red bird sings in the distance.

In this example the word ‘bright‘ modifies the word ‘red’ not the bird.

In the previous example, “serene” and “genteel” both modify [the] nature [of Mother Teresa].

*A comma should set off an absolute phrase that begins or ends a sentence:

His mission completed, the sniper returned to base.

*Commas should be used to set off a noun in a direct address:

John, please don’t eat all the cookies.
I asked you not to eat all the cookies, John.
I can’t determine, John, if you’re ignoring me.

Note: In the last example, since John is in the middle of the sentence, his name should be set off with a pair of commas.

*Introductory remarks should have a comma after them to separate them from the rest of the sentence:

Indeed, we should go to the concert.
Of course, I want to go.

*Introductory remarks like “maybe” or “perhaps” do not need a comma if they do not break the flow of the sentence:

Perhaps we should go to the movies instead.
Maybe we should plan ahead.

That does it for today’s comma rules. Stay tuned for more complex comma rules coming soon!

About the Author

Patti runs several websites covering PLR/Niche Content, and strives to help others through life coaching and personal development.

Denise - September 7, 2009

A few of the writing jobs I've had require that there is no comma between two adjectives even when they are modifing the same word. Pacing seems to be the reasoning behind it. Can you explain a bit about that?

CherylK - September 9, 2009

This was an excellent post. As a writer who definitely overuses commas, I'm looking forward to part 2.

Patti Stafford - September 10, 2009

@Denise – No, I'm sorry, I can't explain why someone would want you to use improper sentence structure, unless they just aren't familiar with the rule.

Without the comma between serene and genteel in the above example, it would indicate that serene is modifying genteel and not Mother Teresa.

Sorry I'm not more help, that's a situation you'd need to take up with the person wanting the material.


Robert - September 10, 2009

Great post! I just won a bet I had with my wife that I forgot about. The , between edit & and!


Patricia Vennes - September 11, 2009

I hate commas! They are my enemy. Great post! I have this book, but I haven't read it yet, humm, guess I should get on that. Btw, the title of your post is flipping funny!

luis - September 21, 2009

Great post, my English is so bad, that I needed to read your article,

thanks, and I hope I put the comma's in the right.


Bryan - September 29, 2009

Are you familiar with a stylebook from a former editor of the Washington Post newspaper entitled Lapsing into a Comma?

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