I’ve covered rules on commas for the last two months (February and March), and this one will finish out the series. Don’t worry, there are some easy ones this time! I know last month’s blog was a doozy.
As I mentioned previously, the overall goal of the comma is to increase readability. The comma rules I’m covering are based on Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which is the style guide used for fiction. Other style guides may have slightly different rules. However, they’re mostly the same. Your copyeditor or proofreader can change any minor differences to conform with the appropriate style guide.
Commas with Multiple Adjectives
Commas related to adjectives are another tricky rule. Whether you use commas depends on how they’re used in the sentence.
She’s a funny, articulate, smart girl.
In this example, the word and could be inserted between each adjective (funny and articulate and smart), and the sentence would still be correct. Therefore, commas should be used.
”Simple, simple girl,” he mocked.
Repeated adjectives, like the word simple in the example above, should have a comma in between.
She’s wearing an inexpensive black suit.
In this example, “inexpensive” and “black” combine to make the picture of the suit. They build on each other. Therefore, there are no commas between the adjectives.
Commas with Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are generally used with commas in two situations—when making a direct quote of someone else or when tagging dialogue. But commas are not always needed in these situations.
First, let’s cover quotes.
Stephen King wrote, “To write is human, to edit is divine.”
In this example, the text is directly quoting what Stephen King said. The quote is introduced with “Stephen King wrote.” This introduction is followed by a comma, then the quote is given. A comma is used if the credit to Stephen King came at the end of the sentence, or in the middle of it.
”To write is human, to edit is divine,” Stephen King wrote.
”To write is human,” Stephen King wrote, “to edit is divine.”
However, if the quote is introduced by the words that, whether, or some other conjunction, it does not need a comma.
Stephen King wrote that “to write is human, to edit is divine.”
The rules for dialogue are exactly the same:
She said, “Come on, we’re nowhere near finished.”
”Come on, we’re nowhere near finished,” she said.
”Come on,” she said, “we’re nowhere near finished.
What you have to look out for with dialogue is whether it’s really a dialogue tag. Something that describes how something is spoken is a dialogue tag. For example, “she said,” “she shouted,” “she whispered.” However, actions are not ways dialogue can be spoken: “she smiled,” “she shrugged.” You can smile or shrug while you’re speaking, but you can’t smile or shrug words out of your mouth.
Dialogue tags are punctuated with commas (unless something other than a period is used in the dialogue and the dialogue tag follows the dialogue—see the second example below) while actions that aren’t related to speaking are standalone sentences and therefore have periods.
She shouted, “Get out of the way!”
”Are you still awake?” she whispered.
”I’m hungry,” she said.
She looked stricken. “He’s dead!”
”Are you sure you want to follow my bad example?” She smiled.
”If you want to.” She shrugged. “I don’t care either way.”
Introductory Yes, No, Well, and the Like
Finally we have an easy rule! Commas should follow introductory words like yes, no, well, OK.
Yes, I had breakfast today.
No, you cannot go to school with just one shoe on.
Well, I guess I can try.
OK, I’ll go along.
The only exception is at the author’s discretion when each word has equal weight, usually in dialogue:
No you won’t!
Similarly, oh and ah are usually followed by a comma unless combined with another word.
Ah, there she is.
Ah yes, I do remember that now.
Oh, I didn’t see her there.
Oh man, you surprised me!
Here’s another easy rule. Name suffixes, such as Jr., Sr., and are not preceded by commas when written first name, last name, suffix.
Joseph Jeckells Jr.
Joseph Jeckells Sr.
Joseph Jeckells III
It’s rare, but if you do have to write the name with the last name first, it is set off by commas, and it still comes at the end:
Jeckells, Joseph, Jr.
Company names are often followed by various abbreviations, such as LLC, LLP, Ltd., Inc., Co. These do not need commas.
Lean on Me Web Development LLC
Jiminy Jumpers Ltd.
Even if corporate documentation for the company uses the comma, it’s better to use a style consistently, so avoid using the comma before company abbreviations.
Too, Either, Also
When too, either, and also are used at the end of a sentence, they are not preceded by a comma.
She wanted to go to the movies too.
However, if it’s an interjection in the middle of a sentence, it should be set off with a pair of commas.
She, too, wanted to go to the movies.
Commas when Addressing Someone
Commas are used around a name or word when directly addressing someone.
Hi, Martha. I hope you had a nice weekend.
Mom, can I go over to Jack’s house?
My friends, thank you for joining me for dinner tonight.
When directly addressing someone in correspondence, such as email, the comma doesn’t come until the end of the greeting:
Dear Mr. Philips,
Multiple Situations Combined
It is possible that you have multiple situations that would call for a comma using the rules above. For example, you could have two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, but the second independent clause has a nonrestrictive dependent clause before it. Strictly following the rules, it would look something like this:
I needed to use the restroom again, but, considering we just stopped fifteen minutes ago, I didn’t want to ask him to pull over again.
In this sentence, “I needed to use the restroom again” and “I didn’t want to ask him to pull over again” are independent clauses joined by the conjunction “but,” and “considering we just stopped fifteen minutes ago” is a nonrestrictive dependent clause to the second independent clause. In this situation, the commas on both sides of “but” look ugly. While this sentence is perfectly punctuated as it is, there’s also no harm in leaving out the comma after “but.” The reader is not going to be confused if it’s left out. The separation of the independent clause is more important than setting off the dependent clause with pairs of commas. So, it’s perfectly acceptable to punctuate it this way instead:
I needed to use the restroom again, but considering we just stopped fifteen minutes ago, I didn’t want to ask him to pull over again.
This version looks less ugly on the page and causes fewer stops for the reader. In other words, it has a better flow without leaving room for confusion. Notice that you still use the comma after the unrestrictive dependent clause, so it’s clear that it’s related to the following independent clause, though not essential.
Whenever you have multiple situations combined, try to reduce the usage of commas too close together because it doesn’t flow very well when reading. When deciding which comma to leave in though, think about which one can be left out without causing any confusion.
Commas aren’t your thing? I can help!