The common comma: rules and recommendations


This post was written on demand. Students ask me to teach English punctuation on a regular basis. It is usually neglected in EFL course books because (I’m guessing) students are supposed to learn it intuitively through reading (which works, to some degree). But when they start writing a lot, especially in business or academic contexts, they realize that they don’t know how to punctuate in English. This is when they ask me. Explaining punctuation in class would be time-consuming because there are so many different rules. In this post, I want to narrow my focus and talk about the most common cases of comma use.

1. Use a comma before the conjunctions and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet if they link two main clauses.

   The book was boring, but I decided to finish reading it anyway.
   The test was difficult, so the teacher gave us more time.


If you link two main clauses with a coordinating conjunction, you need to use a comma. But you don’t need to use a comma if you link two parts of the sentence with the same subject. Compare:
   You should read and watch movies in English. (same subject)
   The book was boring, but I decided to finish reading it anyway. (different subjects)

If the clauses are very short, you may omit the comma (as long as the resulting sentence is clear):
    Translation helps but it also hurts.

2. Use a comma to set off introductory elements. 

   If you don’t know the word, look it up in an English-English dictionary.
   In my next post, I am going to talk about using English-English dictionaries.

Use a comma to set off introductory subordinate clauses, prepositional phrases or verbal phrases. You don’t need to use a comma if the subordinate clause comes after the main clause:
   Look the word up if you don’t know it.

The comma may be omitted if the prepositional phrase is very short and doesn’t create confusion:
   In 2016 I returned to Russia.

3. Use a comma to set off nonessential elements.

   The course book, which was published in 2014, is one of the best on the market.
   TED talks, for example, give a lot of food for thought.

Use a comma to set off nonessential elements, such as non-defining relative clauses, transitional phrases, connectors, and expressions that provide additional information, comments or digressions.

The test of whether an element is essential or not is whether you can remove it from the sentence or not. For example, if you remove the parts in the commas from the sentences above, they will still be perfectly correct and complete.

4. Use a comma before or after direct speech.

   Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
   “Punctuation is the Cinderella of the writing classroom,” the instructor repeated.

But don’t use commas if the direct speech ends in an exclamation point or a question mark:
   “I will never do it!” she shouted.
   “Do I have to do it?” she asked.

5. Do NOT use a comma before that.

   She told me that she was struggling with describing line graphs.
   Let’s start with the exercise that we didn’t finish on Wednesday.

Do not use a comma before that in reporting structures and relative clauses.

6. Use commas to prevent misreading.

   Soon after, the business closed its doors.
   To Laura, Ann symbolized decadence.
   Despite intensive research, scientists still have more questions than answers.

Sometimes words run together in confusing ways. Use a comma to separate them. Compare:

   Soon after the business closed its doors. (confusing)
   Soon after, the business closed its doors. (clear)

   To Laura Ann symbolized decadence. (confusing)
   To Laura, Ann symbolized decadence. (clear)

   Despite intensive research scientists still have more questions than answers. (confusing)
   Despite intensive research, scientists still have more questions than answers. (clear)


There are over 100 pages of punctuation rules in the books that I used for this post, around 30 of which are dedicated to the comma. I have tried to summarize the basics paying attention to the cases Russian learners make mistake in. Let me know if you need more rules how to use commas or other punctuation marks.

PS: “Punctuation is the Cinderella of the writing classroom,” is a quote by Andrew Thomas, whose IELTS training course I once attended. It means that punctuation is undeservedly neglected or ignored in EFL writing classes. I agree.

Resources:
Fowler, H. Ramsey, and Jane E. Aaron. The Little, Brown Handbook 8th ed.

www.pearson.com.au/products/D-G-Fowler-Aaron/The-Little-Brown-Handbook-Global-Edition/9781292099477?R=9781292099477
Carter R., and Michael McCarthy. Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide: Spoken and Written English Grammar and Usage.

Popular posts from this blog

Top 8 mistakes Russian learners of English actually make

8 more mistakes Russian learners of English often make

My Fulbright application or a teachable moment on essay writing

The benefits of being a Fulbrighter (based on personal experience)