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Writing Pitfalls #3: Periods and Commas (Part II)

By now you should be settled into the fall routine and ready to tackle some of those projects that you have been putting off during the warmer weather and days of vacation. Whether it is a work project that has been sitting on a back burner, a paper from summer school that you got an extension for, or the first assignment for a new professor this semester, you want to make sure that you put your best foot forward.

Over the past few weeks we have provided writing tips on active versus passive voice, terminal punctuation, and shared news of our limited-time free samples. This week we continue our discussion of punctuation with something a little more complicated—the comma.

The Comma

The comma is often overused, underused, and seldom properly used. One of the things our team notices all the time is that commas are placed where they should not be, and they are not placed where they should be. All of this leads to very confusing sentences that leave the reader confused and mentally exhausted as they try to decipher what the author intended. We cannot cover all of the issues related to the comma in this one post, but here are some of the most important.

The Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, also called the terminal comma, is the comma that is used to separate lists of three or more item. In a simple sentence, the role of the Oxford comma is less important:

I went to the store and bought red, green and blue socks. (No Oxford comma)

I went to the store and bought red, green, and blue socks. (Oxford comma)

It is clear in this sentence that I went to the store and came home with three different colors of socks. In more complicated sentences, however, the Oxford commas plays a more important role:

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope. (No Oxford comma)

With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa, and the pope. (Oxford comma)

In this sentence, the lack of an Oxford comma might cause one to wonder if the child of Mother Teresa and the pope was the author. The presence of the Oxford comma clears up this ambiguity. Therefore, I insist (and so do many others) that the Oxford comma be used in all formal writing.

Join Independent Clauses

Another time the comma is useful is when you want to join two independent clauses together—essentially, when you want to avoid the choppy reading of a series of short sentences. Consider this:

My sister likes dogs. Her dog is really smart. I took her dog to the park. (Short and choppy—hard to read with efficiently and with fluency)

My sister likes dogs, and her dog is really smart. I took her dog to the park. (Easier to read)

Introductory Clauses

Commas are also useful to separate introductory clauses from the main clause of the sentence. Consider this:

In order to do well you need to read the entire text and complete all the assignments. (No comma)

In order to do well, you need to read the entire text and complete all the assignments. (With comma)

The second option is easier to digest when reading because there is an intentional pause after the introductory clause. The main idea of this sentence is that you need to read the text and complete all the assignments. The introductory clause can be placed at the beginning (with a comma) or placed at the end (without a comma).

Phew—who knew commas could be so intense! It is normal if your head is spinning right now. If you have any further questions about commas, feel free to interact with us on our Facebook page or by accessing our live chat feature on the web site. If you are interested in studying more about this topic and other ways to improve your writing skills, please contact us for information about our forthcoming online courses and webinars.

We look forward to chatting with you next week!

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