Commas You Can Choose And Commas You Can Use

Four pixels of ink stand between every writer and complete mastery of his or her craft. Who among us has not wrestled with that most dreaded of punctuation marks, the comma? Not quite a full stop, something light as a breath of air; neither attribution, coordination, nor interjection; yet shun it we dare not, for we are haunted by its ubiquity.

Once again, I step into the fray, certain that mine will not be the last, well aware that it is not the first, but hoping that this word will help some writer attain, if not mastery, at least some greater measure of skill.

And what better place to begin than with a parsing of the rules themselves? For let us not forget that language need be pliable if it will serve us and our reader, and pliability combines the strength of a finely woven structure with suppleness and fluidity. In the case of the comma, a writer weaves his or her choices through the warp of the readers’ needs and the weft of the text’s meaning while allowing the grammatical rules to frame the whole, just so:

Style – Choose based on your personal preference; just be consistent.

Usage – Choose based on context, and follow the guidance of your publisher.

Grammar – Memorize these rules.

a) comma choice: introductory   phrase

d) comma use: serial comma

f) comma rule: no comma   between subject and verb or verb and object

b) comma choice: emphasis

e) comma use: essential and non-essential elements

g) comma rule: comma to   separate independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunction

c) comma choice: avoid   confusion

h) comma rule: comma to   separate coordinate adjectives; no comma to separate cumulative adjectives

i) comma rule: interjectory or parenthetical words and phrases and attributive tags

Adapted from Venn diagram – Where does grammar end and style begin?

a1) While in Vienna we took the opportunity to visit the birthplace of Mozart.

a2) Because we had so much luggage and the airline was charging an outrageous fee for checked bags, we left our hiking gear at the hotel in Switzerland and were therefore unable to take full advantage of the outlying areas.

Subjects and verbs help the reader make sense of a sentence. It’s polite to tell the reader where they are. You can do that by placing a comma after an introductory phrase, but you must decide just what constitutes an introductory phrase. While in Vienna is just 3 words. Some readers would find a comma in the first sentence distracting. Most readers would need a little help in the second sentence.

NOTE 1: changing the first sentence to While we were in Vienna makes a difference, but not because we’ve added a subject and verb. Yes, we’ve changed a phrase to a clause. But that in and of itself does not invoke the comma. The comma rule comes into play because of the length of the introductory phrase, not the distinction between a phrase and a clause.

NOTE 2: a phrase is a group of words. A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb.

While in Vienna – phrase.

While we were in Vienna – clause. Subject = we. Verb = were.

b1) Yes, certainly, and once more, again, say I. Commas used to represent verbal pauses, in the 1st century BC, when orators like Horace and Cicero were speaking before the Roman Senate. Today, prescriptive grammarians have established rules for when commas are used, so that we can communicate with clarity and consistency. The foregoing example represents the only time when commas still represent a verbal pause, when the writer wishes to create emphasis.

b2) I’ve never known a man who didn’t love the earth, or all that was in it.  This comma is not strictly necessary. There’s no subject after the coordinating conjunction or (see g). Still, a writer might choose to include it for the sake of emphasis.

c) Our choir director, Jerry, quickly decided on a different hymn after he heard the neighboring church sing a lovely a capella version of our previous selection. The word Jerry is an appositive – a single word renaming the previous noun. Jerry is the choir director. You could say Our choir director Jerry. Appositives of more than one word are parenthetical; they require commas. Appositives of one word do not. But a writer may choose to include the commas to avoid confusion.

d1) I’m headed to the store to pick up milk, bread, and butter. Okay, yes, obviously you don’t need a comma to separate bread and butter. And that’s what all the fuss has been about. This is the very reason why many style guides from the AP to Oxford chose to drop the “serial” comma. And in choosing to do so, they have left the following sentence open to misinterpretation:

d2) I dedicate this book to my parents, Pat and Louise.

Am I dedicating my book to two people, or four? Are Pat and Louise the names of my parents, or two other people altogether? Are my parents lesbians?

When the serial comma was standard, we never had to ask these sorts of questions. And the world was a better place. All of the major style manuals published by professional associations (APA, CMS, CSE, GPO, and MLA) recommend consistent use of the serial comma with the one exception of the Associated Press – Oxford be damned!

e1) It was the first time I went for a walk in two months that the mailman didn’t stop by while I was gone. It wasn’t the first time I went for a walk in two months. I’ve been for walks during that time. It was quite specifically the first time in two months I went for a walk THAT the mailman didn’t stop by while I was gone. That’s a restrictive clause. And it does not take a comma.

e2) The bus drivers, rejecting the management offer, remained on strike. This sentence tells us that all the bus drivers remained on strike and why they did so.

e3) The bus drivers rejecting the management offer remained on strike. This sentence tells us that only those bus drivers who rejected the management offer remained on strike (implying that some bus drivers returned to work).

This is the difference between a restrictive and a non-restrictive clause. And this is the reason writers cannot insert commas at a whim when they think the reader needs to pause. They too often, unintentionally, change the meaning of the sentence.

Stay tuned for part II of this article, in which we offer examples and discussion of the grammatical framework for this most common of punctuation marks. And please, share your examples, peeves, questions, and comments. We can all benefit from one another’s experience.


  1. Nice post. Thanks.

    My two cents:

    Here is more than anyone may care to know on whether Jerry’s name should be set off with commas after “our choir director” if you have only one choir director.

    And here is what Oxford says about the serial comma.

  2. On point d1): years ago it was standard to use the final comma; but, somewhere between Jr. High (mid-1970s) and college (early 1980s) things changed and the final comma was omitted. Also, can’t bread and butter be considered collective since they “go together?” Much of this seems to fall under the category of learn the rules so you know how to break them. Your thoughts please…

    • Hi Debra – peanut butter and jelly is a collective item, if it’s sold in the same jar. Bread and butter is a collective item when it’s served together on the same plate. At the grocery store, both peanut butter and jelly and bread and butter are usually separate items, sold separately, except for a few strange years in the United States when some corporate oddball decided to put jelly inside the peanut butter container.

      As I demonstrated in the chart, the commas in this blog post are style and usage commas. On Friday, I’ll talk about commas that are grammatically required.

  3. Looking at d(2) another way:

    “I dedicate this book to my mother, Pat, and Louise. Am I dedicating my book to two people or three? Is Pat my mother? Whether the serial comma is standard or not, we sometimes have to ask these sorts of questions.”

    Using serial commas is a choice. Whichever way you choose, you will sometimes encounter a problem if you’re totally inflexible.

    I don’t think any number of commas can rescue e(1).

    That aside, this is a very useful post, especially the nice distinction in e(2) and e(3). It must have taken a lot of work. I’ll tuck it away in my bookmarks.

    • Ah, Patrick, is this not where George’s useful appositive reference comes into play? An appositive of one word does not normally take a comma, so in the event you reference, were Pat my mother (notice the handy use of the subjunctive!), the correct punctuation would be –

      I dedicate this book to my mother Pat and Louise

      – thereby clarifying that I am indeed dedicating the book to two people and that Pat is my mother.

      I agree that yes, serial commas are a choice, sometimes dictated by our publisher. I wish they were a rule, but they are not.

      Ideally the comma should work in conjunction with our word choice (diction) and our sentence structure (syntax) to clarify our meaning, not bear the entire burden alone. That is one of the marks of a skilled writer. Let us all hope we can one day arrive at that level of skill.

  4. Molly Bennett says

    Surely you should just reorder that Oxford comma sentence and stop agonising? “I dedicate this book to Pat, Louise and my parents.”

    • Yes, Molly, that’s one possibility. Thank you for offering it. And this is one simple example to demonstrate how if a rule is always in effect then its absence has meaning. But if we dispense with the rule, we have to resort to other strategems, and to my mind that is needless invention.

  5. First off I would like to say superb blog! I had a quick question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I’ve had a difficult time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes tend to be lost just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Cheers!

    • Hi Gerry – and welcome. It might help to “make space” for your writing to emerge before you start. Maybe you can take a walk, do some laundry, play with the dogs, or hit the gym before starting to write. During that time, think about what you’d like to write. Start formulating a few words and phrases. Maybe even use your smart phone to record those. Then when you sit down to write, you’re brimming with ideas instead of confronting a blank canvas. Hope that helps! – Michelle


  1. […] by Corporate Writing Pro on March 9, 2012 Leave a comment (0) Go to comments Part two of our comma post could just as easily be called commas that abuse us all, for these are the grammatical “rules” […]

  2. […] Are Pat and Louise the names of my parents, or two other people altogether? Commas You Can Choose And Commas You Can Use | […]

  3. […] missing comma in the title is deliberate, not the product of the Oxford comma debacle, as an unfortunate modern-day reader might suppose. The editorial staff at Funk and Wagnalls […]

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