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By Tricia Goodwin
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
Have you seen the hilarious comma-error memes floating around social media?
The ones where you forget to include a comma in a sentence—so instead of “it’s time to eat, grandma,” you get “it’s time to eat grandma”? In another, forgetting commas turns the list “Jane enjoys cooking, her family, and her dog,” into “Jane enjoys cooking her family and her dog.” Cannibalism humor aside, memes like this get to the heart of an important point: Commas DO matter.
What is a comma? What is it not?
Simply put, a comma is a type of punctuation that shows a separation or relationship between words in a sentence.
It is a common misconception that a comma occurs where one would naturally “take a breath” while speaking the phrases in the sentences. A comma’s job is more formal than that; because it is their job to show relationships between the ideas in a sentence, commas need to be used properly in order to communicate ideas clearly (remember: you don’t want to eat grandma for dinner!).
How do you use it?
So how and why do you use a comma? Below, you’ll see a few different real-world scenarios where using a comma improves the clarity of the sentence:
- Use a comma in a direct address.In a work email, you want to call out one person among several who are included on a message or post. Doing so is called a direct address. With a direct address, you can either include a comma after the person’s name or include a comma before the person’s name. “Thank you all so much for your hard work on this project. Dreena, can you come by my office and drop off the report?” OR “Thank you all so much for your hard work on this project. Can you come by my office and drop off the report, Dreena?” Using a comma with Dreena’s name shows the readers that you are addressing the second sentence directly to her.
- Use a comma after each item on a list.Commas are used to separate three or more items listed in a sentence and should be placed after each list item. Including a comma after each item on a list helps clarify the sentence. For example: “the meeting was attended by the two vice presidents, Henrietta and Geno.” Does this mean that two or four people attended the meeting? Clarifying the list with commas helps answer this question: “The meeting was attended by the two vice presidents, Henrietta, and Geno.” Now we know that four people attended the meeting.
- Use a comma when you want to improve your sentence clarity.Marco is writing an email to his boss, and he wants to discuss his goals for that week. He writes,“Once I get the LOA out I want to find five new leads and I plan to draft an email template for prospective clients. After that my goal is to follow up on my leads from last week but not before I place two phone calls with clients who need some additional assistance.”
As you can see, these two sentences are a mouthful! Let’s break them down into related ideas or chunks:
1. Once I get the LOA out
2. I want to find five new leads
3. I plan to draft an email template for prospective clients
4. After that
5. my goal is to follow up on my leads from last week
6. but not before I place two phone calls with clients who need some additional assistance
Which of these ideas stand on their own as a complete sentence? If you said 2, 3, and 5, you are correct! These three phrases include a subject (who’s doing something) and a verb (the something they are doing), the basic requirements for a complete sentence. The remaining phrases—1, 4, and 6—cannot stand on their own as complete sentences.
What does this tell us? It tells us that we need to clearly connect 1, 4, and 6 to phrases that DO create a complete sentence (2, 3, and 5). How? With commas!
“Once I get the LOA out” is connected to “I want to find five new leads.” We connect them by placing a comma AFTER the dependent part (1) and before the complete sentence part (2). “Once I get the LOA out, I want to find five new leads.” Now we know the relationship between these two parts: The first part will be done first, and the second part will be done second, but ONLY after the first part is done.
“After that” is connected to “my goal is to follow up on my leads from last week.” We connect them by placing a comma AFTER the dependent part (3) and before the complete sentence part (4). “After that, my goal is to follow up on my leads from last week.” Now we know the relationship between these two parts: After he completes the previous parts, he will tackle this next part.
“My goal is to follow up on my leads from last week” is connected to “but not before I place two phone calls with clients who need some additional assistance.” In this example, the first part (5) is a complete sentence while the second part (6) is not. To join these two parts, add a comma before the “but,” the part that shows us the relationship between the two parts. “My goal is to follow up on my leads from last week, but not before I place two phone calls with clients who need some additional assistance.” “But not” and its comma tell us something; now we know that he plans on doing the second part first and the first part second. Thanks, comma, for clarifying!
As you can see, correct comma use is not random, nor is it designed to torture us unnecessarily. There are real, practical reasons for clarifying a sentence through comma use.
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[An earlier version of this article ran in the MindEdge Learning Workshop Blog on August 3, 2018.]
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