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Manufacturing Indaba 2018

The comma - tough to master and easy to mess up

We're dropping commas more than ever because much of our daily writing now consists of quick text messages and hastily typed emails.
Understanding when and when not to use commas can be very confusing. However, using commas correctly can take your writing to a higher level. And give it clarity.

Comma myths

  • Long sentences need a comma - a long sentence may be perfectly fine without commas. The length of a sentence doesn't determine whether you need a comma.
  • You should add a comma wherever you pause - different readers pause or breathe in different places. Where you pause or breathe doesn't reliably indicate where a comma belongs.
  • They're impossible to figure out where they belong - most of the time, commas belong in predictable places. These rules will help you identify them.

When to use the comma

These six comma rules cover the ones you're most likely to need in your everyday writing.

There are many rules for comma usage, but if you remember just these six rules, you should be on your way becoming a master of the comma:
  1. To separate words in a list or series. Separating items in a list helps clarify things:
    The largest banks in South Africa are Standard Bank, FirstRand Bank, Nedbank and Absa.

  2. To separate addresses, dates, titles and names. Just follow these special punctuation rules:
    - His home is in Constantia, Cape Town.
    - Her father was born on 13 March 1955, in Johannesburg.
    - Johan du Toit, PhD.
    - Pieter, are you going to the meeting?

  3. To separate two or more adjectives. When using a string of adjectives separate the adjectives with a comma:
    We were prepared for his long, tedious, strained speech.

  4. After an introductory word or phrase. Yes, no, well, oh, okay, however, meanwhile, - are introductory words that comment on the meaning of the sentence. As they're not part of the sentence they should be separated:
    - Yes, I can make the meeting at 9:00AM tomorrow.
    An introductory phase provides background information or 'sets the stage' for the main part of the sentence:
    - In order to do the job properly, the accountants will need an extra week.

  5. To separate two sentences that use a joining word. There are simple sentences and complex ones. Simple sentences don't need commas:
    - The safe was supposed to be secure. The robbers still managed to break it open.
    By joining these two sentences together with a conjunction like 'yet' results in a complex sentence. Which needs a comma before the 'yet':
    - The safe was supposed to be secure, yet the robbers still managed to break it open.
    Co-ordinating conjunctions are: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so, - and a comma should be used to separate the two independent clauses:
    - Sarah can get you a ticket for a flight, or John could drive you in his car.

  6. When inserting extra information in the middle of a sentence. The parenthetical sentence (also known as an aside) is part of the sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence:
    - John, the most intelligent manager in the department, was always late for work.
    Commas can be used in the same way you'd use a pair of brackets. But there's danger with brackets, your writing can soon be covered with them, which makes it harder to read.
The most common mistake people make with parenthetical sentences is only using one comma. You wouldn't only use one bracket would you? Comma rules don't have to be any more complex than that.

Keep your sentences short, 15-20 words on average, and you won't need to worry about learning more.

About James Hurford

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