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Why the Comma Makes Content More Engaging

In the previous two posts, I talked about the basic parts of a sentence and “so that” versus “so.” In these articles, I discussed the use of punctuation, specifically regarding the comma. But you may be asking yourself why spend so much time discussing it. Well, in a nutshell, it is because the correct usage of commas makes your writing easier to read, more appealing.

Think about a book with no chapters, one with no subheadings, paragraphs, or images. It would be daunting to undertake a book like that, right? Or, what about a newspaper that lists the top news items one after the other with no headers, breaks, or images. Who would read a paper like that? It would not be scannable, meaning you have to read everything to find the stories pertaining to you.

More than that, however, is the fact that having a chapter or a header gives you time to pause and understand what you just read. After reading a section, you have the option to stop and contemplate what you read or move on. It is a logical place to end.

The same applies to punctuation what if a sentence did not end with a period it would be very confusing most people however know when to use a period the comma not so much and yet it is just as valuable perhaps more so.

Try this…

The same applies to punctuation. What if a sentence did not end with a period? It would be very confusing. Most people, however, know when to use a period. The comma? Not so much, and yet, it is just as valuable, perhaps more so.

See what the comma does? First of all, it gives you time to breathe. It also provides an opportunity to absorb the information presented. In essence, it makes the text more readable.

Let’s look at an example.

Example 1

Once all the friends were together at the edge of the pond Finnius asked them what was going on because they seemed agitated and in a great hurry.

Read that sentence out loud. Could you read it without taking a breath? Yes, it is possible to do but not easily. Were you able to absorb the information? Try this one. Again, read it out loud.

Once all the friends were together at the edge of the pond, Finnius asked them what was going on because they seemed agitated and in a great hurry.

Simply adding the comma was enough to make reading it more comfortable and more understandable. By separating “once all the friends were together at the edge of the pond,” you set the scene. You can picture the friends at the side of the pond. The comma allows you to absorb that information before moving on to what Finnius did.

When you read something, pause at a comma and/or take a breath. A good writer will use just enough commas to make the text easy-to-read. With that said, there are some hard and fast rules for comma usage.

If...then sentences

This is an easy one! Always use a comma after the “if” clause of an if...then sentence. The word “then” is not always used, but the comma must come before where it would naturally occur.

Example 2

If you want to find me faster next time, then try this location because it is my favorite spot in the morning.

Let’s take a look at how the sentence would read without “then.”

If you want to find me faster next time, try this location because it is my favorite spot in the morning.

“Then” is understood, but with the comma, you have a logical place to pause so that you understand the first part of the sentence. Now, look at what it would be like without the comma and then without the comma and the “then.”

If you want to find me faster next time then try this location because it is my favorite spot in the morning.

If you want to find me faster next time try this location because it is my favorite spot in the morning.

This rule is easy to follow. When you write a sentence that starts with “if,” automatically put a comma after the beginning phrase.

E.g. and i.e.

This is another easy one! Always use a comma before and after e.g. and i.e. and at the end of the phrase. In a later post, I will discuss the difference between these two Latin abbreviations, but for now, know that you always use a comma before and after them.

Example 3

In the mornings, I don’t go to the south side, i.e., in the shade.

I also prefer warmer spots, e.g., along the edge of the pond, as opposed to the colder areas.

Dependent clause before an independent clause

If you recall, dependent clauses cannot stand by themselves, and when they come before an independent clause, always use a comma.

Example 4

But enough about me, why are you here?

Although Karl was still out of breath, Dana and Squiggy both started talking.

Dependent clauses: “But enough about me” and “Although Karl was still out of breath”

Independent clauses: “why are you here?” and “Dana and Squiggy both started talking”

Connecting independent clauses

Independent clauses stand by themselves. They have a subject, a noun, and complete a thought. When connecting two or more of these phrases, always use a comma.

Example 5

Everyone eventually stopped talking, and Dana calmly explained that the volcano was about to erupt.

Karl interjected, and Squiggy started to sob.

Again, read these sentences without the commas. It is possible to understand them, but I find that they are less clear and feel rushed.

Independent clauses: “Everyone eventually stopped talking” and “Dana calmly explained that the volcano was about to erupt” and “Karl interjected” and “Squiggy started to sob”

Connector words at the start of a sentence

Remember our acronym FANBOYS – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so? When these come at the beginning of a sentence, always separate them with a comma.

Unfortunately, that guidance is too simple. This is the case for every word in the list except “but,” which is different because it has a built-in pause already. Adding a comma would make the pause too long. Read these two sentences out loud, paying close attention to the cadence of the sentence.

Example 6

But the day is gorgeous.

But, the day is gorgeous.

When you read the second sentence aloud, the pause is just too much with the comma. I admit that this is subtle, but as a rule, I do not put a comma after ‘but’ at the beginning of a sentence. Decide for yourself. Now, for the other connectors.

Example 7

Yet, I don’t understand what the volcano has to do with me.

So, tell me what this is about.

With these simple sentences, it may be difficult to get the full impact. However, when these words appear in the middle of a long and complicated paragraph, your reader will appreciate the additional time to reflect.

Aside: Some people consider using these words at the beginning of a sentence wrong, but I disagree. By using this technique, you make very dense and long sentences easier to read.

Independent connector words

These are also called transition words. While they are similar to the connector words discussed above, they can be placed at the beginning, end, or even in the middle of a sentence.

Example 8

Karl said, “As a matter of fact, the volcano has everything to do with you and your life.”

Squiggy added, “You may not be aware of the danger you are in, however.”

Dana lamented, “It is a beautiful day, The volcano, however, will erupt.”

Notice that the connector word is completely separated from the sentence with commas. If it is at the beginning of a sentence, a comma appears after it. At the end of the sentence, the comma occurs before it. In the middle of the sentence, a comma goes before and after it.

Fun fact: US English favors “for example” and “however” whereas UK English typically use “for instance” and “though.” Both are acceptable and understood. The choice of words provides insight regarding the author.

Set apart someone’s name or title

To be honest, I am not a stickler for this rule. But again, in a complicated sentence, it can really help the flow of the words.

Example 9

Finnius, the fish, started swimming nervously in circles.

Finnius the fish started swimming nervously in circles.

His friends, Dana, Karl, and Squiggy, paced the shoreline.

His friends Dana, Karl, and Squiggy paced the shoreline.

In these basic sentences, it really does not make much of a difference. It adds emphasis, but it does not make a tremendous difference. Decide on a hard and fast rule for your writing or decide on a case-by-case basis.

Quotations

In this article already, I provided many examples of commas introducing quotes. This post is about commas, so I limit my discussion to that subject. I will fully address punctuation usage surrounding quotations in a different post. The simple rule is to separate the speaker from the quote.

Example 10

“Finnius, we are running out of time,” Squiggy yelled at the water. “You need to talk to us.”

Dana jumped into the water, “Finnius, you must talk to us. We must come up with a plan to save you.”

Oxford comma

For the most part, the previous rules are non-controversial. This section, for whatever reason, is contentious. For those of you who do not know what the comma is, let me explain.

When you have a list of three or more items, an Oxford comma is added before the word 'and' or 'or.'

Example 11

Karl paced, jumped up and down, and returned to the water’s edge.

Finnius stopped going in circles, swam to his friends, and listened intently.

Let’s remove the Oxford commas. You know the drill. Read these out loud.

Karl paced, jumped up and down and returned to the water’s edge.

Finnius stopped going in circles, swam to his friends and listened intently.

The second examples are not clean writing. There are three distinct movements, and I, as the reader, want to appreciate all three of them instead of running them together.

To set the record straight, people in Oxford, England do not use it! Well, most people in the UK do not use it. I also find that people in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not either. Add to that, most non-native English speakers omit it as well.

So, why is it controversial? I have no idea. In my opinion, it should always be used because it makes the text less ambiguous. Millions of dollars have been lost in legal cases based on the lack of the Oxford comma.

While most of us who are slightly older were taught never to use the Oxford comma, I have to wonder why that was the case. And also, why we are clearly following outdated rules!

Fun fact: The Oxford comma is also called the Harvard comma, the serial comma, and the series comma.

When not to use a comma

There are times when a comma should not be used. Remember, the purpose of a comma is to create a pause in the sentence. Sometimes, that pause is more distracting than helpful.

Because and since

I see many cases where people include a comma before the words because and since. The problem is that a phrase that starts with these words is a dependent clause. Therefore, they should not have a comma separating them from the independent clause, unless the dependent clause starts the sentence.

Example 12

Dana climbed out of the water because it was easier to talk on dry land.

Dana climbed out of the water, because it was easier to talk on dry land.

When we pause at the comma, then it makes it seem like there is more to come after the because portion of the sentence. It is unnatural in speech.

Too many commas

Having too many commas is just as bad as having too few. It breaks up the flow and does not allow the reader to understand the text. If you find too many commas in a sentence, then break it up with en (–) or em (—) dashes or create multiple sentences.

Example 13

Dana shook to remove the water from her coat, which sent water flying everywhere, and since cats do not like to be wet, Karl, who particularly dislikes water, ran as fast as he could from the site, wasting even more valuable time.

This sentence has six commas that are all properly placed. But being technically correct does not mean that the message is easy to read or understand. This sentence has too many commas and, in my opinion, is too long.

Example 13 – rephrased

Dana shook to remove the water from her coat, which sent water flying everywhere. Like most cats, Karl dislikes water and ran as fast as he could from the site, wasting even more valuable time.

Often, it is necessary to reword sentences. Never be afraid to rework the language to make it the most effective it can be. Writing is somewhat easy but making it great requires skill. Do not merely put the words on paper and hope your words convey the message. Spend the time to polish it and make reading it engaging and enjoyable for the reader.

Quick tip

If you read something aloud and you have to reread it because you did not understand it, then there is a good chance that you need to add commas.

Let’s reevaluate the last sentence. Should it have more commas or be broken into two sentences? Well, you should decide what works for you. Read the following versions aloud and decide which fits your style.

  1. If you read something aloud and you have to reread it because you did not understand it, then there is a good chance that you need to add commas.

  2. If you read something aloud, and you have to reread it because you did not understand it, then there is a good chance that you need to add commas.

  3. If you read something aloud and have to reread it because you did not understand it, then there is a good chance that you need to add commas.

  4. If you read something aloud without understanding it, then there is a good chance that you need to add commas.

Summary

Situation Comma Usage Comment Example
If...then Use a comma before ‘then.’ If ‘then’ is not used, put the comma where it would be. If it rains, I need an umbrella.
E.g. and i.e. Use a comma before and after e.g./i.e. Also, use a comma to close off the phrase. I hope the weekend, i.e., Saturday and Sunday, will have moderate temperatures.
Dependent clause before independent Use a comma before the independent clause begins. When the sun shines, I am in a happier mood.
Connecting independent clauses Use a comma before the connector word. I will mow the lawn Saturday, and I will do the weeding on Sunday.
Beginning connector words Use a comma after a connector word at the beginning of a sentence. The exception is the word ‘but.’ And, cooking will be done on both days.
Independent connector words Use a comma to set the word off from the sentence. If it appears at the beginning of a sentence, then a comma after; in the middle, use a comma before and after; at the end, use a comma before. Whether summer is coming to an end, however, remains to be seen.
Name or title Set the word(s) off with commas. My husband, Peter, will actually mow the lawn this weekend.
Quotations Use a comma before the quotation. Peter said, “I will mow the lawn if it doesn’t rain.”
Oxford comma Use a comma in a list of three or more items. Just use it! I have tomatoes, peppers, and herbs growing in my garden.
Because and since Do not use a comma when the word is in the middle of a sentence. My tomatoes suffered this year because the squirrels climbed the vines.

Conclusion

The end goal is for your writing to convey your message in an easily understandable format. I cannot stress enough how reading your words out loud will yield a vastly superior message. Pause at the commas. If you run out of breath, you have a problem because readers cannot retain more than they can breathe.

While it may require more work on your part, reading it out loud and adding the appropriate commas will elevate your writing, more easily spreading your message and increasing readership.

My suggestion is to decide on the rules that you want to follow and stick to it. Believe it or not, if you switch the punctuation, or style rules, throughout your writing, your readers will notice. Create a Style Guide for your writing and follow it!

Do you have more questions or tips regarding when and where to use a comma? If so, leave a comment below.

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For the complete story of Finnius, Squiggy, Dana, and Karl, read more.