by Shauna Bolton


You wanted help figuring out commas, and here it is.



What Commas Are Not

  • They don’t tell readers where to breathe.
  • They don’t tell readers where to pause for effect.
  • They don’t go into a sentence because you don’t know what else to do.
  • They aren’t the “salt and pepper” of prose that make your writing better.


What Commas Really Are

  • Commas are structural markers.
  • Commas shape meaning.
  • Commas identify and separate words into clear, comprehensible chunks.


Writers who botch commas create confusing – or incomprehensible! – prose.

Commas are also legally enforceable.

Check out these lawsuits where commas cost BIG MONEY!


Learn the rules. They’re not rocket science.


Rule 1—Serial Elements

  • Use a comma to separate the elements in a series.

(A series is a string of three or more things.)


Example 1: “Gary burned the toast, scorched the eggs, and spilled the milk.

Example 2: “John drafted the plans, Susan estimated the cost, and Lucas presented the proposal.”


Using a comma between each separate element makes the series clear. In Example 1, the commas show the order in which things happened. In Example 2, the commas show who did what.

This comma rule is called the serial comma, or the Oxford comma.

  1. In journalism, you may see a serialism punctuated like this: “The American flag is red, white and blue.” The Associated Press does not use the serial comma in simple lists, saving it for sentences that require additional commas to clarify meaning. This practice saves space, requires less paper, and makes newspapers and magazines cheaper to produce.
  2. America and Canada favor the serial or Oxford comma. Great Britain favors leaving the second comma out.
  3. Using the serial or Oxford is really a matter of publication style. Some book printers, newspapers, and style manuals may specify the punctuation rule to use. If your publisher does, do it their way.
  4. Make sure your lawyer knows how to use commas. If you see comma errors in those documents….


Rule 2—Simple and Compound Sentences

  • A simple sentence has one subject and one verb


Example 1: “The baby cries. Sally laughs.”

“The baby” is the subject of the first sentence. “Cries” is the verb.

“Sally” is the subject of the second sentence. “Laughs” is the verb.


  • A compound sentence is one sentence with two subjects and two verbs


Example 1: “The baby cries, and Sally laughs.”

When you connect two sentences with a comma, you MUST use one of the seven coordinating conjunctions.

FANBOYS = for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so

Example 2:I want this book, but I lack the money.”

Example 3: I missed the carpool, so I watched television at home.”

Example 4: Mom keeps my textbooks away from Johnny, for he tears books up.”

Example 5: You come with us, or you wait for your mother.”

Example 6: I will not help you study, nor will I share my notes.”

(Nor requires inverted word order. When 2 or more words are marked as verbs, you’re looking at a verb phrase. Negative uses three words; positive uses two.)

Example 7: I am not responsible for the accident, yet I feel guilty somehow.”


  1. If you connect two sentences with a comma and no conjunction, you have created the deadly comma splice.
  2. If you connect two sentences without a comma, you have created the deadlier run-on sentence.
  3. Both the comma splice and the run-on sentence are grade-school errors that tell readers, editors, and publishers you don’t know the basics of punctuation. It reflects badly upon you and your work.


These two rules are the most basic comma rules for writers.

What will an editor do if you can’t handle these correctly?

 Don’t find out the answer –



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