A comma is the brave little toaster Jamaica Phone Number of the punctuation family. Stalwart, unassuming, and essential. It’s a tiny, useful piece of punctuation that two-thirds of the internet has apparently forgotten how to use.
When did web writers decide the comma was just an annoying interruption? That they could just leave most of them out, because no one cares about that stuff now? As if they’re not important when writing a good blog post?
And then — possibly regretting their previous poor choices — sprinkle a few commas randomly on top, perhaps to make it look more … punctuate-y.
How to use a comma in a sentence
Please, please my dear fellow writers, knock it off …
When you leave out the commas, particularly if you then throw a couple of random ones in there, your content ideas run the risk of looking uninformed, silly, or just plain confusing.
“Do you love dogs the planet your flag and country babies justice equality freedom?”
That’s a quote from a classic post of mine, with the commas in a list ripped away.
That one’s a little extreme, since it’s a list of nouns. Notice, though, how you’re not sure which words belong together. Is it “country babies?” “Equality freedom?”
I see only slightly less extreme versions of this in marketing stories every day.
Sentences I need to re-read to figure out which words go together. Sentences that stop me in the middle, like that horrible person who brakes in the middle of the street to read a text.
And sentences that just seem to be running out of breath, because the writer hasn’t learned how to use a comma.
Use commas for clarity
I love what Ursula Le Guin had to say about punctuation in her book on narrative, Steering the Craft:
“… punctuation tells the Jamaica Phone Number reader ‘how to hear’ our writing. That’s what it’s for. Commas and periods bring out the grammatical structure of a sentence; they make it clear to the understanding, and the emotions, by showing what it sounds like — where the breaks come, where to pause.”
Take the last bit of that and strip away the punctuation. Notice how hard it gets to understand:
“they make it clear to the understanding and the emotions by showing what it sounds like where the breaks come where to pause”
Getting your punctuation in order isn’t about making English teachers happy. (Although that, also, is a worthy goal.)
It’s about making your writing clearer, more pleasing, and easier to read. If you want to learn how to become a freelance writer, proper comma usage is non-negotiable.
Do commas matter in “conversational” copy?
Some writers feel that the rules of punctuation will make their writing stuffy. Better to just “write like I talk,” and let the voice make a connection.
I think learning to write like you talk is a magnificent goal. It’s not always easy to learn.
Getting a really good grasp on punctuation allows you to write more like you talk, by giving the reader a simple way to understand the structure of each sentence.
If you’re writing content for any kind of purpose — for clients, for relationship building to support your business, or even to promote a hobby or other personal writing goal — your words have to find the right place in your audience’s ears.
Learning how to use a comma helps that happen naturally and painlessly.
A special note about commas for professional writers
Professional writers have an additional obligation.
If you’re the designated scribe for someone else, just as it’s your responsibility to learn how to overcome writer’s block, it’s also your responsibility to make that person or company look amazing.
When professional writers don’t know how to use commas and other punctuation marks, they make their clients or their organizations look ill-educated and careless. And that’s not okay.
How to polish your comma skills
You were probably a lot less geeky than I was when you were in 9th grade. Nearly everyone was.
So you may not have been paying rapt attention when your teacher talked about comma usage, or what semicolons are for, or how to form the trickier possessive plurals.
We’re lucky to live in the 21st century, with a bunch of useful resources to help us fill in those gaps.
The best option is probably to hire a good proofreader (or possibly even an off-duty English teacher) to look over your work and find the errors. If this person is really wonderful, they can explain the errors to you, so you’re less likely to make them again.
That’s not workable for everyone, and — this will strike some as heresy — I have no problem with writers using a tool like Grammarly to help find missing commas (and get rid of the ones that are there for no reason).
Early automated usage and grammar correctors were pretty dumb. They tended to introduce a lot of errors and mark perfectly acceptable usage as incorrect.
The new tools, like Grammarly, are smarter. But they’re still not perfect, and that brings us to the next point …
Develop a solid understanding of comma rules
If Grammarly or your proofreader flags a missing comma and you don’t understand why, take a minute or two and figure it out.
You can check websites like Grammar Girl, or books like The Well-Tempered Sentence or The Elements of Style Illustrated. (A friend turned me on to the illustrated version of that classic, and it’s a charmer.)
You can hire a tutor for an hour or two. Or get on Facebook and find out which of your friends were English majors.