Writing Skills

Oh, Comma, You Little Trickster You, Leading Us Astray…

Why do people struggle so with commas? It’s seems we either tend to over-do it or under-do it, and using commas correctly eludes us. Maybe that’s because the comma is so easy to use and so easy to leave out. It’s just a little bit of punctuation, lacking the hardness or a period after all, right? What harm can it do to guess?

Well, in my opinion, it can do plenty of harm if it a) gets in the way of clarity, b) makes you look dumb, or c) both a and b. So let’s talk about at an easy way to know whether or not you need to use a comma when writing.

Here’s a real-life sentence from a marketing piece I recently came across. Can you find the comma error in it?

These questions are just some of the internal issues that arise when onboarding new customers, that can leave damaging and lasting effects on your clients, your team, and your bottom line.

Hold on! Did you try? Take a stab at it. I’ll wait….

The comma error unveiled
OK, here’s my answer: There isn’t any need for a comma after the word “customers” because the words that follow are part of that preceding clause.

I’m not going to get all punctuation technical on you, here, don’t worry. But I will clarify that yes, you use a comma between two independent clauses and the problem with sentence above is that it’s not an independent clause, rather part of the same clause. The “issues” can “leave damaging and lasting effects.” They go together.

Sadly, this kind of error is common. And it’s the kind of error that gets in the way of communication when the reader has to re-read the sentence because the comma makes no sense. Plus it’s the kind of error that reflects on one’s credibility because it means the writer doesn’t know how to use a comma or the writer didn’t bother to proofread.

So, Sharon, how do I know when to use a comma?!
You can find detailed instructions on when to use a comma in this article, and it’s probably worth two minutes of your time for a quick review.

However, grammar and punctuation rules aside, here’s one easy way to know whether you need a comma or not: Read it out loud. (Yes, back to the read it out loud advice, but I’m telling you, it works!)

If you read it out loud and there’s a pause, you need a comma. If you read it out loud and there is no need for a pause, skip the comma. Try it with the two sentences you just read: Read them out loud and you’ll notice you pause after the word “pause” in both sentences.

It’s not a long, dramatic, drawn-out pause. It’s a split second one, but enough of a break to know something is needed. If the designer of the magazine cover pictured here had taken two seconds to read the type out loud, they might not have made Rachel Ray out to be so brutal!

This little bit of advice won’t help you to know when commas are needed for numbers, adjectives and dates, but it will with rules such as adding a comma after a “yes” or “no” because you’ll hear the pause. Same with using a comma after someone’s name when addressing them, as in, “Sharon, how do I know when to use a comma?!” Notice the slight pause after my name when reading that sentence out loud?

The comma seems like an innocuous little bit of punctuation, but it exists for a reason. And there’s plenty of reason for using it correctly in your writing!

P.S. What about the serial or Oxford comma? Hang on. That’s another topic altogether. We’ll address that another day.

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