How do I know what the correct use of the comma is?

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Answered by: Ariel, An Expert in the Grammar and Composition - General Category
The elusive comma has plagued many writers, professional and casual alike. Can’t I just use it whenever I would pause in the sentence? Does it do anything else other than make lists? I think I’m over using it...

The truth is that those are all valid thoughts; the comma is a challenging piece of punctuation. See what I did there? See that imposing semi-colon? We’ll talk about that one later because now it’s time to break down the use of the comma. I’m going to explain some of the more commonly misunderstood uses of the comma, but there are so many more that you’ll encounter.

In a list:

This is use of the comma that most people know. Simply insert the comma between each element of any list that is 3 or more elements long.

Maria only needed to buy apples, cereal, and chicken at the grocery story.

The final comma is technically optional, but it can cause some serious bouts of confusion if you leave it out, so I prefer to use it.

After the first phrase or clause of a sentence:

Now this is a slightly more complicated use of the comma. If a phrase in the sentence is affected by an earlier phrase, or if you are using a phrase with a preposition, you MUST separate your phrases with a comma.

Since Maria remembered her grocery list, she was able to make baked apples for dinner.

This is an example of the first requirement because the fact that Maria made baked apples DEPENDS on the fact that she remembered her grocery list. Get it?

After she returned from the grocery store, Maria realized that she’d forgotten to add potatoes to her shopping list.

This is an example of the second requirement because “after” is a preposition. Whenever you use a phrase that begins with a preposition, you have to add a comma.

Before a conjunction:

Maria wanted to go back to the grocery store, but her car was out of gas.

For an explanation of conjunctions set to music, I direct you to the song "Conjunction Junction" by the wonderful folks at Schoolhouse Rock.

When you’re changing from one idea to another with a transitional word:

Transitional words are things like however, therefore, instead, on the other get the idea. The main use of the comma is to show when a speaker would breathe if saying the sentence, so it’s easy to remember to use a comma when changing ideas because you’d need to take a deep breath before turning on your heel and going in another direction!

Her car was out of gas, however, she had her trusty horse to take her to the store.

To separate information that isn’t important, or is just extra:

Maria’s horse, Brown Bunny, had never liked her name.

When you give something a name, describe it in more detail, or simply add nonessential information, you have to use a comma on either side of the word or phrase. If what you’ve added is at the beginning of the sentence, just put a comma after it.

There you have it. Maria, her unfortunately named horse, and some of the trickier uses of the elusive comma. Pop them into your everyday sentences and see how much smoother they sound!

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