Copy-wise: Beware of too many, too few or misplaced commas

Imaginehavingtoreadentirebookscompanyreportsorwhitepapersinwhichwordswerent separatedbypunctuationofanykindcanyouimagineunderstandinganythingthefirsttime

Writing that way would seem like the opposite of clear communication, wouldn’t it? But that’s actually how information was recorded in ancient Greece, when all writing was meant to be read aloud by speakers familiar enough with the text to understand where – and how long – to pause between words.

Fortunately, today we have the comma, question mark, dash, semicolon, colon and exclamation mark to help break our written words into clear, manageable chunks. But they do this only if they’re used correctly. When they’re not, they can create confusion just as much as writing without any punctuation at all.

Let’s start by looking at the comma. This little curly mark has many good uses. But it also seems to be getting more than its fair share of abuse lately. Consider a few of these based-on-real-life examples:

Besides the benefits, this will bring to both our companies, this move will help our customers as well.

Rather than negatively affecting our customers, partners and suppliers, this buyout, a way of combining our company’s strengths with another’s will boost the appeal of both our offerings.

This problem arises when businesses that have offices in many parts of the world and need local suppliers, try to find services without understanding the region’s culture.

In all of the above examples, commas appear where they aren’t needed (after “Besides the benefits” and “need local suppliers”) or aren’t used where they should be (after “our company’s strengths with another’s”).

The problem shows up most often in sentences that are long and complicated. This illustrates why it’s important to keep writing succinct and try to stick with one key thought per sentence. When you muddle a sentence with multiple points, it’s easier to get lost in the punctuation weeds.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth reviewing the fundamentals of good comma use. Contrary to what you might have been told at some point, this doesn’t include putting in a comma “whenever you take a breath” while reading your writing out loud.

Instead, there are 10 simple rules for using commas properly, according to journalism professor Miles Maguire’s The Comma Project from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Use them to:

  • Separate elements in a series (e.g., “We bought bread, olives, cheese and fruit.”)
  • Separate two independent clauses when they’re connected by an “and” or other conjunction (“We went to the market, and then we stopped by our old school for a visit.”) – although also check out our take on the Oxford Comma, which may or may not be the right style for you
  • Follow an introductory phrase that’s four words long or longer (“Before I drove to the train station, I picked up my clothes from the dry cleaner.”)
  • Set off a non-essential modifying phrase (“William Shakespeare, whose birthday is traditionally observed on Saint George’s Day, began his career writing comic and historic plays.”
  • Separate adjectives of equal importance (“The bright, modern dining room was set for a birthday party.”)
  • Set off a parenthetical word or phrase, or a word like “yes” or “no”) (“The park, of course, was empty during the stormy weather.”)
  • Set off a participial modifier (“Robert sat quietly for a moment, stunned by the TV programme’s final episode.”)
  • Mark a quote or paraphrased comment when appropriate (“Lara laughed and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’” However, no comma is needed in this sentence: “Lara laughed and said she didn’t believe it.”)
  • Set off cities, states, countries, dates, ages and titles (“The two boys, ages 15 and 17, arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 15, 1967.”)
  • Separate two identical words when used next to each other (“The question is, is this enough to get started?”)

Finally, if you’re writing a complicated sentence that absolutely can’t be shortened, it helps to look out for missing commas by following this rule of thumb from writer and English/journalism professor Ben Yagoda:

“It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E.. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.”

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