The Comma Conundrum -->

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The Comma Conundrum


By Sarah Prince, Writing Consultant

In fourth grade math, I started each class period with what my teacher called Mad Minute quizzes. For a grueling 60 seconds, each student stared down a sheet of multiplication problems, which had to be answered as quickly as possible. The student who answered the most multiplication tables correctly received a gold star by his or her name after each class. I never did very well on these quizzes, and at the end of the year, there were still no stars beside my name. From this point forward, I just assumed I was terrible at math. As I progressed to middle school algebra, high school trigonometry, and college calculus, I felt like this initial assumption was confirmed over and over again. On each math quiz or test, I would give up and assume the worst at the first sign of anxiety, frustration, or confusion. I was simply bad at math, and I would never understand.

I bring up my own fraught experience with multiplication facts not to draw some weird parallels between poor math skills and excellent writing skills, but to instead draw another sort of similarity regarding many writers’ beliefs about understanding correct comma usage. As a writing instructor and as a tutor, I have heard countless students say “I just don’t understand commas,” or “I don’t know why I put a comma there.” If I probe a little further, students reveal that there are too many rules and too many exceptions to these rules to really ever get a good handle on where (and where not) to place commas in their writing.

Just like the fourth grade Sarah, who decided she would never understand 8 x 6, these students simply decided they were not capable of understanding commas. So, how about we make a deal? For 10 minutes or so, throw out all of your assumptions about what you think you know and don’t know about correct comma usage. Pretend you are learning about commas for the first time. Open a new brain file, select a blank document, and take down these three important rules, which will steer you in the right direction regarding comma placement:

1. Insert a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins two independent clauses.
a. To clarify, a coordinating conjunction is simply a small connecting word. Many grammar nerds (like me) use the acronym FANBOYS to remember these words (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).
b. Another point of clarification: An independent clause is simply a part of a sentence, either before or after the coordinating conjunction, that can be read as a complete sentence on its own.

I am not a big fan of salad, but I know I should eat leafy greens.
• Because both “I am not a big fan of salad” and “I know I should eat leafy greens” can be read as complete sentences on their own and because they are joined with and (a coordinating conjunction), you DO insert a comma here.

I really like the smell of grapefruit but not the taste.
• Here, only “I really like the smell of grapefruit” can be read as a complete sentence. Writing “not the taste” by itself is a sentence fragment (or what we call a dependent clause), as it does not have a clear subject or verb. So, even though it is still joined by but, a coordinating conjunction, you DO NOT need to insert a comma in this case.

2. Use a serial comma in your academic writing.
a. A serial comma simply means that a comma should separate each element in a series of three or more.

Before running a marathon, I like to make sure I have my shoes tied tight, my race number on straight, and my hair pulled back in a high pony tail.
• Here, because you have three list elements, you insert a comma to separate each element (even the one that comes after the and).

3. Add a comma to an introductory clause to help readability.
a. An introductory clause, often called an introductory subordinating clause by grammar nerds (again, like me), is a way many writers provide readers with sentence variety and necessary context. These clauses begin with subordinating conjunctions (e.g., after, although, since, while, for, if, unless) and are situated at the beginning of your sentence.
b. Important: Although many believe that a comma is necessary after every introductory clause, some other scholars believe that these commas are only necessary after longer introductory clauses (for instance, those of four words or more). I know this might seem a bit confusing, but the most important takeaway here is to stay consistent in your own writing.

Although I always wake up early for work, I really would love to sleep in some days.
• Here, your introductory subordinating clause is “Although I always wake up early for work.” However, you still have an independent clause (a part of your sentence that can be read as a complete sentence on its own) following this clause.

Now that you know these three important comma rules, hit that mental save button. Although I promise that no one at the Walden Writing Center will pass out any comma Mad Minutes to test your new knowledge, I challenge you to try implementing these three rules into your academic writing. Hopefully, with just a little practice, you can erase that voice in your head that is telling you correct comma usage is something you‘ll never grasp. And while you are catching up on commas, I’ll be working on 8 x 6 . . . without a calculator.