Take a Break with Commas

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30 March, 2017

From VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

Imagine you are taking a trip in a foreign country. You are driving a rental car that you got at the


What could help you find your way in this strange land?

Signs, for one thing.

Think of punctuation as a series of signs. These signals clarify your writing. They show your reader what words are important, and what belongs together.

Punctuation marks, like traffic signs, show your reader what is coming: a full stop, a minor turn or a sudden change of direction, for example.

One of the most important – and most debated – punctuation marks is the comma.

Today on Everyday Grammar, we will report on common uses of the comma. We will also tell about the importance of commas in American law, and how they still influence the meaning of laws.

Do not fear: unlike driving on busy American roads, this report will be fun!

Common uses of commas

The comma has many uses. Teaching guides say there are lots of ways to use commas in writing. Luckily, we can find patterns among all of these stylistic rules.

The first, and perhaps most common, use of commas is to show a pause.

Pauses are important in creative writing, such as poetry, and in speechwriting. In these kinds of writing, the relationship between written and spoken language is very strong.

Historically, commas were used as a way to mark a short stoppage or break, instead of showing grammatical differences.

However, in many kinds of modern writing, the comma serves a different purpose: to show what is different and what belongs together.

Ann Longknife and K.D. Sullivan are writing experts. In their book, The Art of Styling Sentences, they note that commas generally serve two purposes: separating the main parts of a sentence and enclosing words and expressions.

Consider the words you heard earlier in this report:

"Today on Everyday Grammar, we will report on common uses of the comma. "

The comma appears after the word "Grammar." Why is that?

First, it shows the reader (in this case, Dr. Jill Robbins) that she needs to pause her voice. Second, the comma shows that what comes before it is serving a different grammatical purpose than what comes after it.

In the example you heard, the phrase "In today's Everyday Grammar" gives information about what comes after the comma: "we will report on common uses of the comma."

You could remove the words that come before the comma. So the independent clause, "we will explore common uses of the comma," could be its own sentence.

Stylistic considerations and editing

In The New York Times newspaper, Carmel McCoubrey writes that the difference between comma usage styles is not always clear. Even when operating under the same stylistic guide, McCoubrey writes, different people will want to put commas in different places. In other words, there is some level of personal choice when it comes to comma placement.

Comma placement is important - not just for writing papers and stories. Consider these two following examples:

Part of the dispute in a recent legal case was related to the meaning of an Oxford comma. An Oxford comma is a comma that is used before the conjunction in a series of nouns. In other words, the comma makes clear that the final term is different than the others on the list.

A second - and perhaps more famous - debate involves the second amendment to the United States Constitution. Both supporters and opponents of gun rights have argued about the meaning of the law. They have argued that the use of commas in the amendment changes the meaning.

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Some writers, such as Adam Freedman, say the commas in the law are arbitrary, and that the sentence is best understood by taking the commas out. He points out that different versions of the law may have different numbers of commas. He adds that historically, punctuation was not used in the same way it is today.

These disputes center around one common idea: commas are supposed to make language clearer. However, the commas in the laws created misunderstanding.

To go back to our examples of traffic signs, it would be like reading a road sign pointing in two different directions. Both directions cannot be correct.

What can you do?

So, if comma usage can be difficult for native speakers, what hope do English learners have?

Luckily, there are two simple steps that can help you overcome problems with commas.

#1 Put yourself in the reader's position

The first is to put yourself in the reader's position.

Ask yourself if you are using commas that send clear signals to your reader. Are you always using commas in the same way?

If you were driving on a road, you would expect the same signs to be used in the same way over and over again. With that in mind, you should always try to use punctuation consistently so that you do not confuse your reader.

#2 Use short, declarative sentences

Another idea is this: write short sentences. In other words, limit the amount of information you include in each sentence. If your sentence has many pauses, then you are increasing the chances that you will confuse your reader.

The next time you are reading in English, look for the commas. When and why does the writer use a comma? Is there a stylistic or grammatical reason they use the comma? How does the comma separate the different sentence elements?

With time and effort you will learn how to use commas effectively.

We will leave you with a song about punctuation from the American musician and actor, LL Cool J:

A comma means you slow down,

Pause, take a breath,

When I want to go to Spain,

I hop onto my plane

I'm Jill Robbins.

And I'm John Russell.

John Russell wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

rental – adj. of or relating to paying money in return for being able to use something that belongs to someone else

enclose – v. to put something around (something)

clause – n. part of a sentence that has its own subject and verb

arbitrary – adj. not planned or chosen for a special reason

punctuation – n. the act of adding marks or signs to clarify the meaning of sentences

pause – n. a temporary break or stoppage

conjunction n. words that join together other words or groups of words

overcome v. to defeat; to reduce or overthrow

confuse – v. to make someone unable to understand something

consistentlyadj. always acting in the same way


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