Today’s lesson: Make figuring out appropriate comma use a little easier by replacing them with simplified words or phrases that are easier to gauge.
Lists of Two
I’ve touched on this in a previous post, but it is such a common mistake—especially when it comes to verb clauses—it deserves the extra attention. Consider the following sentence: “We had so much fun at the party the other night and took tons of great pictures.” Do you think a comma belongs? Replace this sentence with the simplified version:
“We had fun and took pictures.” No comma.
How about this one: “They spent all morning decorating the house with streamers and balloons and had a lot of fun doing it.” Replace this sentence with the simplified version:
“They decorated and had fun doing it.” No comma.
So how could we correctly use commas in the above sentences? The answer: Make sure each is a fully independent clause, which means each has its own stated subject (someone or something doing something):
“We had so much fun at the party the other night, and we took tons of great pictures.”
“They spent all morning decorating the house with streamers and balloon, and they had a lot of fun doing it.”
Here’s one more: “They ate a hearty breakfast then ran a mile to work it off.”
Simplified: “They ate then ran.” No comma.
In this case, “then” functions similarly to the way “and” does. Look at it this way: “They ate a hearty breakfast and ran a mile to work it off.”
There are exceptions. If withholding the comma hinders readability, such as in the case of certain clauses with separate verb tenses or moods, use a comma between them even if they do not have their own independently stated subjects.
Example: “They spent all morning decorating the house with streamers and balloon, and might have had a lot of fun doing it had their attitudes been better.”
Simplified: “They did this, and might have had fun doing it.”
Also, two independent clauses (each has its own stated subject) can be a list of two when following words such as “because,” “as,” “since,” and thus should be treated as such.
Example: “They decided not to go since they had no money and it would be easier to eat at home.” To simplify this, think of the sentence this way: “They decided not to go because of this reason and that.”
Were the sentence lacking “They decided not to go since…” a comma between “they had no money” and “and it would be easier to eat at home” would become necessary: “They had no money, and it would be easier to eat at home.”
Finally, if you have a clause that reflects the actions of the subject rather than the object, a comma will complicate the sentence rather than clarify it.
Example: “She couldn’t believe he stood her up, and was rather upset.” The comma here clarifies that he isn't the one who is upset.
Similarly, if the subject is followed by two actions that need to remain segregated to avoid confusion, use a comma.
Example: “‘I can’t believe he stood you up,’” he said, and offered a consoling frown.” The comma here separates the dialog tag from the action. You wouldn’t write, “‘I can’t believe he stood you up,’ he offered a consoling frown.” He’s not consoling his words; he’s saying them. Use a comma to show you understand that distinction.
While you might have readers who also do not know the rules, there is always a chance that editors, agents, or reviewers reading your work do. If you take the time to know and understand these rules, your writing will be sharper and you will be able to present it to the world with confidence and skill.
Until next time, my pretties, when we tackle noun and gerund phrases. (Insert evil cackle.)