“If you cook Elmer will do the dishes.”

comma

As you can see from the sentence in the headline, which appears in Hacker and Sommers’s Rules for Writers (7th edition), a missing comma can make for some pretty funny reading—even if we didn’t intend to be amusing.

For some people, though, commas are no laughing matter. Not long ago a friend of mine cried as she told me her tale of comma woe (which involved a mean-spirited professor, a red pen, and a classroom full of laughing students).

The rules regarding comma use are finite and are not too difficult to learn, though. Below are a few rules you might find especially helpful:

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Use a comma between all items in a series (known as the Oxford, or serial, comma). Although some argue that a comma before the last item in a series is not necessary or, as might be the opinion of a newspaper editor, takes up too much space, I use it because it makes clear what otherwise might be confusing.

  • CORRECT: I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty (from Grammarly).
  • UH-UH: I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.

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Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (think FANBOYS—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) ONLY when what follows that conjunction is a complete sentence with a subject and a verb (an independent clause).

  • CORRECT: I will cook Elmer, and I will also do the dishes.
  • UH-UH: I will cook Elmer, and will also do the dishes.

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Use a comma after an introductory clause or phrase.

  • CORRECT: After taking a very long bus and train ride, my cousin said she was tired and wanted to go to bed.
  • UH-UH: When Irwin was ready to iron his cat tripped on the cord (from Rules for Writers, 7th edition).
  • EXCEPTION: You can omit the comma if the clause or phrase is short and the sentence will not be confusing without it. (Example—For once she was happy to see him.)

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So now you know.

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