Sprinkling commas through one’s writing as if they were candy is not a good practice. Similarly, withholding said “candy” leaves one’s readers galloping too fast through the field of prose without a chance to breathe. Commas add rhythm and beauty, not to mention clarity, to one’s written ideas.
- The book, was lying right there; it needed to be finished.
- My friends Roderick and Anna were getting married.
- At first we wanted to eat but, we went home instead.
Many writers place commas wherever you might pause naturally when speaking. That’s often fine, but there are specific rules to follow, and they’re worth learning. Use a comma to separate independent clauses when they’re joined by a conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet). “At first we wanted to eat, but we went home instead.” Use a pair of commas mid-sentence to set off clauses, phrases, and words that aren’t essential. “My friends, Roderick and Anna, were getting married.” Use commas to separate items in a series. “Buy apples, oranges, and bananas.” Use a comma after an introductory clause, phrase, or word that comes before the main clause. “If I have time, I would really like to learn to play the banjo.” Commas should never appear between a verb and its subject, as in “The book, was lying right there.”
Mention the Oxford comma at your peril! People have strong feelings about it, and this is often a result of their training. Journalists are taught never to use it. The Oxford comma, otherwise known as the serial comma, is the final comma in a series that comes before the word and or or. “Buy apples, oranges, and bananas” uses the Oxford comma. You’ll never be wrong if you use it, and you’ll avoid troubling sentences such as “I invited my parents, Joseph Stalin and Mayor Susan Smith.”