Grammar-ease: Comma power

The comma. It’s such an easy piece of punctuation to leave out or add to a sentence, but it can have a powerful effect on meaning. I hope this post shows you just how much the correctly placed comma matters.

Take this favorite line: Let’s eat Grandma. Unless the Big Bad Wolf is talking, the line should be Let’s eat, Grandma. The motto with this one is ‘commas save lives.’

Another favorite example is an actual book title on the topic of punctuation: Eats, Shoots & Leaves. A panda eats, shoots & leaves. I always get a chuckle from this one because it’s so visual for me. Does he have a big meal before shooting and leaving? It’s great fodder for a mystery writer. Remove the comma, and see how the line changes. Eats Shoots and Leaves. Makes much more sense, doesn’t it? Pandas certainly eat bamboo shoots. And they can leave.

Ever see the road sign that depicts children crossing the street? The sign reads Slow children crossing.  Children tend to have a lot of energy, for them to be slow when crossing the street, well, I don’t see it. The text should be: Slow, children crossing. Drivers may not heed the sign without the comma in place.

I couldn’t resist including this:.

Slow children 1000 points road sign

Image from HCHG Golf Society

Another popular example is a teacher asking the class to punctuate this line correctly. A woman without her man is nothing.  Apparently all the boys wrote: A woman, without her man, is nothing. All the girls wrote: A woman: without her, man is nothing. Can you see how powerful the comma is? And how the writer’s perspective has an effect?

A British newspaper printed this line: The defendant said his barrister had a history of drug abuse. The same newspaper then printed a correction: The defendant, said his barrister, had a history of drug abuse.  Big difference between the two, isn’t there?

Commas can help your readers figure out which words go together in a sentence and which parts of the sentences are the most important. Missing commas tend to confuse the reader. As a writer, you want your readers to keep moving forward on the page, so avoid confusion when  you can.

Do you enjoy working with commas? Do you notice examples like the above either in  your own writing, or when you’re reading? 

Lisa J Jackson writer

Lisa J. Jackson is an independent editor, writer, New England region journalist, and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom

53 thoughts on “Grammar-ease: Comma power

  1. My problem has always been more of an overuse of commas. This does make it clear when it’s appropriate to use them…now I just have to find out where -not- to use them! 😛

    • Overuse is tricky and hard to give examples of. If you find you have more than 3 in a sentence that isn’t forming a list of related items (i.e, “the ball, bat, and glove), you might want to break your sentence into 2 or more sentences. Shoot for clarity and you’ll probably be okay. 🙂

    • I have the exact same issue! My overuse of commas can be rampant and it tends to creep up in emails. I try to stay aware of it at all times and edit, edit, edit!

    • Don’t stress over the little comma! If the sentence works for you, it’s probably okay. But if you find yourself pausing a bit too much or re-reading a line, you may have too many commas.

      I play around with shorter sentences when I’m in doubt. 🙂

  2. Thanks Lisa,
    Very helpful post. I will now re-edit my short story, looking specifically at the placement of my commas!

  3. The book “Eats, shoots and leaves” should be standard reading for people like myself, I learnt so much from that book. Well written and easily understood. Loved your article

  4. Ah” the comma, that little squiggle has sent me into many a mood, and if you work with many handicaps, this little squiggly thing can cause apoplexy for the adult learner. But’ am learning, by watching, and working out for myself through reading articles like your’s, thank you

  5. Lisa, thanks for all the chuckles with this punctuation lesson! I ADORE working with commas–and the long-neglected SEMI-COLON. Remember that one? A friend in college said it was going out of commong usage because no one wanted to be thought to be only partially gutsy! Sounds like a medical term to me, come to think of it!

    • I love penguins – thanks for the pic with your post. 🙂 The commas *can* be fun once you get over the intimidation of them. I don’t use the semicolon much, but it does have its place and now that you’ve brought it up, I’ll have to post on that topic in the future!

  6. Thank you for this great post. I’m terrible with commas. For me, the best way to find where to place them is to read my writing aloud. Grammar rules never ruled in my life.

    • Hi Jamie – I can relate. Grammar rules intimidated me for years. But now I’m just more and more curious about words and *want* to learn the rules. I need them to be a bit fun and if they are easy to remember, even better, so that’s my goal – figure them out and share them in a way that connects with others. 🙂

      Reading out loud is a great test for commas…and writing in general.

  7. For “Eats Shoots and Leaves” I think the leaves refers to plural of “leaf” not the act of leaving. But yes, with commas placed in different areas, this can certainly be read a number of ways. I ❤ the comma, I probably use it (way) too much.

    • Very good points all around. I don’t have the book handy, but I think you’re right about the title – funny that it didn’t jump to mind when I wrote this post. I had the full joke in my head (A Panda walks into a bar…). Thanks for pointing that out – and it *is* another example of the power of the comma.

  8. Great post–thanks! I hope the reader above is correct about commas trending. Seems like they are often left out by some authors, but I still find them essential for meaning and expression.

    I used to teach my English as a Second Language students that the comma is where you pause or take a breath. (I made that up–is it accurate? Seemed to work at the time.) Here’s to the comma! Long may she live!

  9. I struggle with the proper use of the comma. I find I catch many of my errors, when I read back through what I what I have written, out loud. Did I use them correctly, in that statement? Arrg, see what I mean, commas are everywhere!

    • And even when you do have commas figured out, different style guides use them differently. For instance AP style doesn’t use the serial comma and Chicago Manual of Style does. A lot of rules have exceptions and that’s where *I* start to go crazy. 🙂

      So, no need to panic – we can only do our best and try to get the commas tamed.

  10. This was helpful and entertaining, thank you. I think I tend to over use the comma but I will definitely pause for thought now. Oh and those were some smart girls;)
    “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

  11. Love the article! I teach English to high school students. There are soooo many sources out there about the “how” of using commas, but my ever-questioning kids want to know the “why.” Whining voice – “Whhhyyy do I have to use commas right????” This shows them “whhhyyy” with humor, common sense, and plain writing. Thank you!

    • LOL – you know how to get the whining expressed in writing, smartin700. I bet you can find a lot of real world examples for the kids now – take a sentence and remove a comma and see what happens!

  12. Really great examples in this article. Misuse of commas drives me batty, especially when I realize I’ve put one in the wrong place, or left it out entirely. (Primary reason I wish facebook allowed editing of posts/comments!!!)

    • Hi Bobbie,
      I always hate when I’ve hit ‘send’ on something and then notice a mistake, too. But, a missing comma, or one too many won’t cause the world to end – yet…just got a story idea from this.

      thanks for the reply!

  13. In a world of abbreviated communication and text speak there is a general movement towards using less punctuation. Thank you for reminding the world of how important it is.

    • You’re welcome. I think it’s sad how text speak is how some kids are learning to spell. Saw a funny photo the other day for a spelling bee. The word was “later” and the contestant spelled it L-8-R. There really will be people who won’t know how to spell real words.

    • Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is another handy book, I agree. Thanks for sharing the post – I see the mix up with loose/lose all the time when I’m reading. 🙂

  14. This is hilarious. “Slow Children…1000 points each?” So um, if you hit a child, you get like a 1,000 points. Is this some kind of really messed up real-life Super Mario Kart? Or is it that when you see a slow child (whatever that means), you get 1,000 points. Do you get a prize when you get to 10,000, like a trophy?

    When I lived in Cambridge, MA, there was a sign on my street that read: “SLOW CHILDREN.” And that was it. Nothing more.

    At first I thought I was living near a special-needs school. Then I thought that–as you said–the children were uncharacteristically slow when crossing the street. And THEN I thought that maybe the kids in my neighborhood were just slow in everything they did, as in, maybe kids who live in Cambridge right next to Harvard like to do things slowly so they can get them right because they’re high achievers.

    Turns out, none of the things I thought of were true. It was just bad grammar in the magical and arrogant world of Cantabrigia. Go Crimson. :-/

  15. Pingback: Comma Chameleon | chrismcmullen

  16. Hello! My question is…. do you add a (,) in between…big and bad such as a title like…” the big bad wolf ” or “a big bad wolf” or do you not put any commas?

  17. I am having a debate with my Grandson about the use of a comma when a person speaks. i.e
    William’s Mother said —– is there a comma after said?

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