As we’ve demonstrated numerous times on this blog, we are a tad obsessed with commas. We can’t help it: we’re obsessed with good writing, and bad comma usage detracts from good writing. It’s the hardest punctuation mark to master, and the most important.
Almost worse than not using commas where they’re needed is using them where they just don’t belong. It’s just…jarring. So today, a couple of quick reminders of where to SHUT IT DOWN when editing your writing or someone else’s for comma usage.
I’m about to get a little loud. Sorry in advance.
NEVER Put a Comma Between a Subject & Its Verb
“Today’s children, are tomorrow’s leaders.”
Seriously, just back away slowly from this comma. I see it a lot when the subject of a sentence is complicated in some way by another attribute that separates the main noun from the verb. Like this:
“People who exercise 30 minutes a day or more on a regular basis, report less anxiety and depression than those who are less active.”
Part of the problem is that there is a slight natural pause there. Picture a newscaster saying that into a microphone. She’d probably insert the slightest hint of air where I’ve put that mistaken comma. But a pause does not always a comma demand, because writing is not the same as speaking.
The subject of the sentence is people – highly active people, which I know is distracting, but people nonetheless – and the verb is report. That’s it. End of story. NO COMMA.
Now, not to overcomplicate things, but the only exception (it’s English – there’s always an exception!) is when you are including an appositive or a parenthetical statement of some kind between the subject and its verb. In that case, you need two commas:
“The comma-obsessed woman, clearly an English major, could not understand why no one else at the bar seemed to care about the menu’s obvious grammatical faux pas.”
STOP Using Commas Between Two Items in a List
JUST DON’T DO IT.
This takes a lot of forms:
- When using two adjectives to describe the same thing: “We use blog posts to inform our customers about our services in an efficient, and engaging manner.”
- When talking about two subjects doing the same thing: “Our top-notch training practices, and excellent benefits packages ensure that we attract only the top talent in our industry.”
- When describing two separate actions of the same subject: “At the board meeting, our CEO demanded that we all take a grammar course, and stormed out of the room.”
WRONG, WRONG, AND WRONG AGAIN.
(See, that was three things – hence the commas.)
Naturally, there are exceptions, such as the use of the phrase “as well as” between two items, which may require judgment calls. But in general, when you’re only talking about two things, put that comma back on the shelf.
Learning to use commas correctly is probably the hardest part of learning to write, and it’s easy to add them where they don’t belong, thinking that more commas = more clarity for the reader. But often, they have the exact opposite effect. Just like learning to eliminate unnecessary words, deleting those extra unnecessary punctuation marks will make your writing clearer, cleaner, and more powerful.