First, with all the authority vested in me as a writing instructor, I will let you in on a little-known secret about commas. There is not a page quota. That’s right. You don’t have to add commas because you don’t think there aren’t enough on a page. Nor do you have to take any away simply because the page is littered with little black marks that aren’t left-over Oreo crumbs from the cookies you inhaled while sobbing over your paper/manuscript.
“Okay, Miss Smarty Pants Writing Instructor,” I can hear you say. “Where do I put a comma, then?”
I’m glad you asked. Follow me on a little trip I like to call…
Well, I don’t really have a name for it, but if you think of one, let me know. I’ll edit this entire part and add it in. More important than a witty title, let me show you where to start.
Part One: The Basic Sentence
No, this sentence doesn’t wear yoga pants and a ponytail to order a Venti half-caff whatever. This is your basic active voice sentence. One that contains, IN THIS ORDER, a subject, a verb, and an object, or S-V-O for short. Here’s an example:
Mom threw out my clothes.
If you aren’t sure which part is the S,V, or O, always start with the verb. The verb is the action, right? So find the action word. Got it?
Now, the subject will always be the he/she/it performing the action. So, who did the throwing out?
Finally, the object will be the person/thing receiving the action. Ahem.
Simple, right? Good. While we’re here, do your reader(s) a favor and try to format all your basic sentences this way. If you put the object before the action, you get a passive voice which will bore your readers. Here’s an example:
My clothes were thrown out by Mom.
See what I mean? Anyway…
Now that we have the basic sentence lined up, we can add what the professionals call a modifier. This can be one word like an adjective or adverb, or it can be a phrase. There are many types of phrases with all sorts of intimidating names that only linguists, grammar teachers, and really stuck-up people can distinguish. If you want to know more, click here. Otherwise, follow along for the basics.
I’m going to add a prepositional phrase to my basic sentence. For example: After I left my clean laundry on the floor…
Here’s where comma use comes in handy. I can add this modifying phrase to my basic sentence three ways. Two of them need commas. One doesn’t. Watch…
- After I left my clean laundry on the floor, Mom threw out my clothes.
- Mom threw out my clothes after I left my clean laundry on the floor.
- Mom, after I left my clean laundry on the floor, threw out my clothes.
So you see, if you add the modifier BEFORE the basic sentence, you need a comma to separate the modifier and the sentence. If you add it AFTER the basic sentence, you don’t need a comma. If you add the modifier IN THE MIDDLE of the sentence, you need TWO commas. These are called parenthetical commas because they act like a tiny little comma hug around the modifier to make it feel safe and welcome. Okay, that’s not really why, but I like personifying grammar. Makes it easier to remember.
We good so far? One more point to make…
The next proper use of a comma revolves around quoting stuff, like dialogue.(This is to appease your mentor eyes, Sharon-buy her books because she’s amazing.)
Characters are weird, right? They do all sorts of things without our permission. Usually that’s okay. Better, even, for the story-line. But when it comes to comma use in their dialogue, they have to play by the rules, no matter what they try to tell you. That said, all previous rules apply when said characters are speaking.
But what about dialogue tags?
Hopefully, you’re only using said or asked as tags. Even better, use movement/action AFTER the dialogue. It gives the reader a better picture. Let me show you…
Here’s standard dialogue:
- “Hey,” Mom said.
- “Hey back.” I walked into my room and saw my usually full closet empty except for a few stray hangers. “Where’s all my clothes?” My throat clenched as I spoke.
- “Oh, those things?” Mom filed her nails and grinned. “I thought all that was garbage since it was strewn all over you floor.”
So, what did you notice? Besides the bad dialogue.
- Standard dialogue with a standard tag. Notice the comma in INSIDE the quotation marks. As a brilliant friend of mine once told me, the comma is a puppy, and the quotation mark is rain. When it’s raining outside, the puppy stays in. (Thanks, Kether.) Easy, right?
- Notice there is no comma associated with the dialogue in the second sentence. Instead, there is a period. In the next, separate, sentence, the speaking character is identified by his or her action. More dialogue from the SAME character follows in the same paragraph. Once that character is done speaking and acting, the next character who speaks gets his or her shiny, new paragraph.
- The same rules from #2 apply here, except there is a comma in the actual dialogue. This comma follows the rules of the modifiers. The interjection (Oh) must be followed by a comma since both sentence sections can be considered complete sentences. For more on FANBOYS (coordinating conjunctions), click here.
How we doing? Brain okay? Lucky you. This here ends the comma lesson.
Funny story: I searched GIFs for “benediction” and got “Benedict-ion”… You’re welcome.
Hopefully this little grammar pause (see what I did there?) helps your writing adventures. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments or contact me on Twitter if I can help in any way.